Friday, 24 June 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 24 June 2016

A YOUNG conductor made his debut with the Hallé last December in one of the most impressive appearances by a newcomer I can remember.

He was Harish Shankar, and he took just one piece in a programme mainly under Sir Mark Elder. But that item, Tchaikovsky’s tone poem, Fatum – fate – remains with me now.

There was power and intensity in the opening and close, refinement and beauty in the more lyrical episodes, and electricity in tone and phrasing as the music grew to its climaxes. Harish Shankar’s style, economic on gesture but highly effective, gave the orchestra what it needed.

Harish is appearing at the Bridgewater Hall again on June 30, again sharing the podium with Sir Mark. This time it’s the Royal Northern College of Music Symphony Orchestra performing, in their big end-of-year concert.

The programme is full of Italian favourites – Rossini’s overture to Semiramide, Verdi’s Prelude to La Traviata, and Respighi’s The Fountains Of Rome and The Pines Of Rome, which depict the Eternal City’s story in vivid, exciting musical colours.

Harish Shankar’s task, with RNCM piano soloist Jeremy So, is to offer contrast with Prokoviev’s piano concerto no. 2.

Harish is Junior Fellow in Conducting at the RNCM and has been living in Manchester for the past two years. Born in Malaysia, he has seen the world, as first his family moved to New Zealand, and he went on an exchange visit to Germany at age 16 and stayed seven years.

He’d begun playing the piano when he was six, and learned cello as well. After musical training in Lübeck he went to Peru to run a children’s orchestral project called El Sistema. “That was really where I learned most about conducting,” he says. “I taught chamber music and piano, too. I had probably the best time of my life there, but I’m a nomad and after a while in one place I feel the itch to move on.”

He returned to Germany, worked in opera and completed conducting studies in Weimar. Then he came to Manchester, to join the RNCM and be mentored by Sir Mark Elder and others. “I thought it was a vibrant city and a beautiful scene to plunge into musically, and Mark Elder’s mentorship is inspiring.”

Next he’s going to be resident conductor with Malaysia’s top orchestra – “An honour for me, and returning to the country of my birth will be fantastic.”

Monday, 20 June 2016

Halle review 20th June 2016

Elder, Hallé Orchestra and Halle Children’s Choir, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

’Tis the season for big children’s choirs to show off their end-of-season projects, and the Hallé Children’s Choir and Hallé Orchestra had something exceptional to present under Sir Mark Elder’s baton on Sunday afternoon: the world premiere of Jonathan Dove’s A Brief History of Creation.

Commissioned by the Hallé for the children’s choir, it formed the second part of a concert that began with Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite no. 1 and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, at the Bridgewater Hall.

There’s little doubt that this will be a piece other accomplished children’s choirs allied with big orchestras will want to sing: its greatest virtue being its immediate accessibility in performance to listeners of all ages, especially younger ones.

It’s a substantial piece, taking most of an hour, and requiring an orchestra with triple woodwind and at least three percussionists, playing a battery of different instruments, including a waterphone. The Hallé employed an extra waterphonist and instrument (both examples were played with a bow), in the event.

The piece describes, as the title suggests, the creation of the universe and then the world, taking the story through millions of years of evolution to the birth of mankind. The words are by Dove’s long-time collaborator, Alasdair Middleton, and tell of the origins of life, the universe and everything on the basis of a thorough rummage through the latest science.

So not so much a Representation of Chaos at the start as a Big Bang – though there was a bit of pretty clear quantum disorder immediately following it – and then we’re into fanfares and eddying motifs as matter comes into being and the poem begins with ‘Starlight …’

The story proceeds with neo-Wagnerian sound effects to represent the depths of the earth and the mighty beasts that ultimately inhabit it, and it’s a score alight with glittering ideas … and not a few jokes. The Earth cools, for instance, under ‘Rain and rain: For the next few centuries; More of the same’, which is a very Mancunian concept.

The 13 individual sections are too many to describe in detail, but one that stood out – and might even prove a detachable excerpt – is about the dinosaurs: ‘We’re dinosaurs and we are dead; we on one another fed; not much went on in our head; a comet killed us, so it’s said …’ It has a jazzy, stride-sort-of accompaniment, and the choir had a lot of fun with it.

Then begins an extensive bestiary from past and present, and it’s not long before we hear about whales, which is where the waterphones come in. They make whalesong, of course.

A Brief History of Creation is an enchanting piece, and from the appearance of microphones around the stage it seems a published recording may be in prospect.

The entertainment value of the Hallé’s version of The Young Person’s Guide, with up-to-date new narration by ex- Hallé horn player Tom Redmond and already well known to their younger audiences, was equally high.


Robert Beale

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Review of Götterdämmerung, 19 June 2016

GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG   Opera North, The Lowry
To criticize Wagner’s dramaturgy in Götterdämmerung for being too conventional is beside the point. It has love duets, oath-swearing, a choral wedding scene, a vengeance trio and a funeral march – all ideas other operatic dramatists use. I don’t buy the idea that the Ring cycle’s parts bear the same relationship to each other as the movements of a symphony (the first is shorter than the others, and the third is in no way a scherzo), but Wagner knew he needed a finale, and a finale needs denouements and drama.
What that drama provides is a feast of opportunities for the soloists (and, in this case, chorus), as well as the orchestra, to sock it to their audience. Opera North’s 2016 cast – in eight cases identical to that of 2014 – were up for all of them, and the orchestra, if not quite on the peak of virtuosic form we saw on Thursday night, were playing magnificently.
The prolonged standing ovation that came at the end of the evening was testimony to the gratitude that surged around the hall at the close of the whole vast undertaking, and the vision of Opera North’s outgoing musical director, Richard Farnes, in making it happen. You don’t often hear calls of ‘Maestro, maestro!’ among the bravos at the end of an opera performance in England, but they were heard last night.
Peter Mumford’s filmic staging of the story was as lucid and effective as before, but the chief glory of this performance was in the emotional presence and acting of the principal characters, combined with some very fine singing, and chief among those, I think, was soprano Kelly Cae Hogan’s Brünnhilde. Her power and tone were unflagging – and remember this was her third marathon appearance in the role in five days – and she brought passion and intensity to every part, with the immolation as a mighty climax.
I love Mati Turi’s Fred Flintstone-style interpretation of Siegfried (and did when he took the role in both the latter parts of the cycle before), and he made another fine job of it this time, despite some strain creeping into the highest register towards the end.
But perhaps the most surprising elements, in soloistic terms, were the heartfelt and energized characterization of Gutrune by Giselle Allen, a wonderful dramatic singer, and the attention held throughout her monologue by Heather Shipp as Waltraute – both newcomers to the cast this year (though of course we’ve known them as great artists with Opera North before).
Mats Almgren (Hagen) and Jo Pohlheim (Alberich) fulfilled every expectation in their respective personifications of evil and meanness, and sang with resonant malevolence, and Andrew Foster-Williams made the weak-willed and covetous Gunther a petulant egotist while singing with consistent strength.
The Valkyries from Das Rheingold  (Jeni Bern, Madeleine Shaw and Sarah Castle) were as liquidly lovely as before, and Fiona Kimm, Yvonne Howard and Lee Bisset made baleful Norns. Opera North are lucky to be able to have singers from big roles in other parts of the cycle taking the lesser ones here as a bonus. And the 50-strong chorus (35 of them men) made that wedding scene – which all ends in tears in a way that outdoes any TV soap opera) – completely thrilling.
Robert Beale

Friday, 17 June 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 17 June 2016

THE Glossop Festival has been going only three years but is looking more exciting and attracting bigger names to perform each year.

This time – June 20 to 25 – it’s got international bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu on the bill, as he joins a starry line-up of singers including Sarah Castle, Miriam Ryen, Rachael Lloyd, Louise Mott, Claire Surman, Eamonn Mulhall and Robert Davies, with the Glossop Festival Orchestra conducted by Christopher George, for its concluding Mozart Opera Gala concert at St James’s Church, Glossop, on the 25th.

There’ll be extracts from Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, Così Fan Tutte and The Marriage Of Figaro.

The festival begins with over 200 local primary school children playing violins and clarinets along with the Glossop Festival String Orchestra, for workshops and schools concerts with audiences of over 1,000 local children (Monday and Tuesday).

On Wednesday there’s evening chamber music at the Parish Church in Old Glossop, as the Angell Piano Trio are joined by soprano Katherine Broderick. There’s a newly commissioned piece for trio and voice by Jordan Hunt, plus Shostakovich and Brahms.

The Festival Orchestra, conducted by Christopher George, performs Shostakovich’s cello concerto no. 1, with soloist Matthew Sharp, and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3 on Thursday evening at the Parish Church.

Friday June 24 has two events – a morning coffee concert by piano soloist Viv McLean and another evening performance by the Festival Orchestra, with Viv McLean playing Mozart’s piano concerto no. 21 (the ‘Elvira Madigan’ one) after the Don Giovanni overture, and then Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5.

The festival is run by professional musicians who live in or near Glossop, with Tom Elliott, husband of Hallé principal flute Katherine Baker, as artistic director. His assistant is opera singer and teacher Claire Surman, founder of ‘GlossOpera’.

Tom and Katherine have lived in the centre of Glossop for 11 years, having moved from Cardiff, where Kath was principal flute of the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra before taking up her post with the Hallé. They have three boys: Arthur, Henry and Felix.

Tom says: “The festival is really a lot of old friends getting together – and sharing what they do with the local audience. And there are three pubs nearby – that helps to keep the musicians happy!”

Matthew Truscott, a leader of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, is the Festival Orchestra leader, and conductor Christopher George is former leader of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Review of Siegfried 17 June 2016

SIEGFRIED   Opera North, The Lowry

The soloists in Siegfried, the third part of Wagner’s Ring cycle given by Opera North at The Lowry this week, were the best team yet. Four of the eight were repeating their performances from the original 2013 production, four were new – and the happy outcome was that each new participant contributed something extra to what was a very powerful realization the first time.

Richard Farnes’ conducting of the score (which contains some of the most accomplished and moving music Wagner ever wrote) was again inspired, and rewarded with superb effort by the orchestra: rightly cheered as much as the singers when the plaudits came.

The morality of the story is probably something few Wagnerites worry about these days. Young Siegfried is a self-absorbed brat with no respect for his elders, and you can only think a lack of proper parenting has made him that way. But he ends up communing with nature – something we all like to see – and winning the love of the ‘ewig weibliche’ Brünnhilde, which is the only happy ending the Ring tetralogy affords. Whether his attitudes helped sow the seeds of Naziism is a debate best left for another day.

The role is one of the great tests of a Heldentenor, and in Lars Cleveman Opera North have the man for the task. His tone is wonderful and his power sustained at the same high level throughout (in purely theatrical terms it was a pity he couldn’t have shaved his beard and put a wig on to look younger, but we’re using our imagination so much in this interpretation of the cycle that another suspension of disbelief was not difficult).

Béla Perencz was superb as The Wanderer, too. This was a god who had rediscovered his vigour, and he sang with passion and presence. Jeni Bern made the Woodbird totally delightful, with fluttering, stepping movement, and Kelly Cae Hogan was every bit as wonderful as Brünnhilde as she had been two nights before, combining strength and richness and making the final love duet a thing of splendour.

Mats Almgren (Fafner) and Jo Pohlheim (Alberich) returned to the fray with all the same virtues they displayed before, and Ceri Williams’ sheer warmth as Erda was something to luxuriate in.

In some ways Richards Roberts’ return to the portrayal of Mime was the acting-singing highlight of them all. It’s not a nice character at all (I wonder if Gollum had his origins there?), but he found all the humour in it he could.


Robert Beale

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Review of Die Walkure, 15 June 2016

DIE WALKÜRE  Opera North, The Lowry

One effect of experiencing the Ring Cycle as a continuous whole is heightened awareness of the differences between its four parts, as well as their continuities.

There is a distinct change from Das Rheingold to Die Walküre: fewer characters in most of the scenes (even the eight Valkyrie sisters of Brünnhilde operate as a unit much of the time), events in the story proceeding at a slower pace, more discursive writing in both text and music so that it functions not so much as an exposition of plot and place but as both a literary poem and a tone poem.

And there’s only (relatively) brief reference to the subject we thought until now that the cycle was about – the power of the Ring and the gold that goes with it. That’s one of the pleasures of the work as a whole: its shape-shifting as it goes on.

There was a transformation, too, last night in the performance. The orchestra played superbly for Richard Farnes from start to finish: his attention to the detail of the score and the romantic, emotional sounds it creates in the love scenes of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the father-daughter dialogue of Wotan and Brünnhilde was rewarded with music of subtlety and beauty.

Comparing this emanation of Die Walküre with that of 2012, when Opera North first presented it in Salford, the most striking thing was the difference in casting (unlike in Das Rheingold, where many roles had the same exponents as in the first outing). Out of 14 named characters only two Valkyries were the same.

And most effective of all were the young singers embodying Siegmund and Sieglinde: Michael Weinius and Lee Bisset. She has grown from the promising RNCM student we remember to an artist of depth, personality and richness. He had all the big voice and heroic demeanour required. James Cresswell, switching from the previous night’s Fasolt to the nasty and small-minded Hunding, continued to sing with incisive power.

Yvonne Howard’s Fricka again had the individuality, intensity and tonal fulsomeness she displayed in Das Rheingold, and Robert Hayward made a fine Wotan for her – a portrait of ageing authority rather than brazen power.

But the jewel in this piece was Kelly Cae Hogan’s Brünnhilde. She saved the performance in Leeds on its inception in Leeds in 2012, flying in at short notice when sickness struck, and the brightness and fluidity she brought to the role then were every bit as clear now, allied with remarkable strength.

And the Valkyries – including Giselle Allen and Sarah Castle from the night before and uniting some of Opera North’s best female solo voices – were magnificent.


Robert Beale

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Review of Das Rheingold 14 June 2016

DAS RHEINGOLD  Opera North, The Lowry

At last it’s here – the full Ring Cycle from Opera North, performed inside a week as Wagner originally intended. Richard Farnes’ interpretations of the four great music dramas, staged with real-time film backdrop, simple lighting and symbolic costuming by Peter Mumford, along with orchestra on stage and soloists at the front, have been widely praised since they began their year-by-year journey in 2011.

At The Lowry, although we’re in a theatre anyway, the enhanced concert-style presentation works if anything better than it does at Leeds in the town hall. Sightlines are easier, for one thing, and with this presentation they matter. And sound balance last night was excellent, the singers projecting straight into the auditorium and Farnes’ control of the orchestra ensuring that, while frequently thrilling and stentorian, it never overwhelmed the voices.

One thing I think was a mistake was to perform the work, all two hours and 40 minutes of it, without an interval. Opera North seem to have decided that if they were going to suffer for their art then we were, too. There was a clear impression at the beginning that the brass players had not even warmed their instruments up – since they knew they were in for a long session anyway – and by the end that they, and others, were beginning to flag. A break would have helped everyone.

The casting was not vastly different from the first time. Jeni Bern and Sarah Castle, returning as Rhinemaidens Woglinde and Flosshilde, were joined by Madeleine Shaw (Wellgunde), and the combination worked beautifully. Michael Druiett was again the imposing yet world-weary Wotan, in excellent voice. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke once more sang and acted a remarkable, nervously deal-fixing, constantly scheming Loge. Yvonne Howard was lovely to hear again as Fricka, and Richard Roberts mean-minded Mime once more.

The newcomers (not to the Ring project, but to us for this piece) were powerful additions, all enhancing the performance. Jo Pohlheim, as Alberich, had possibly the best voice on stage and put so much into his character I almost liked him. Giselle Allen gave her panicking Freia a voice of inflected passion that was wonderful to hear. James Creswell, a bass of superb tone, was full of presence and swagger as the giant Fasolt, and Mats Almgren’s darker, sinister sound as Fafner complemented him perfectly.

There were moments of pure gold in this performance, some from lovely voices such as Ceri Williams’ Erda, some from Richard Farnes’ instinct for the lyrical amid the declamatory and the dramatic, some from the orchestra when it put its mind to it, that bode very  well for the remainder of the Salford Ring.


Robert Beale

Friday, 10 June 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 10 June 2016

OPERA NORTH brings its complete cycle of Wagner’s four-part Ring Of The Nibelung to The Lowry on June 13, 14, 16 and 18. It’s a marathon, with start times of 4.30pm or 3.30pm for the second, third and fourth sections – and that’s how Wagner wanted it to be, a music festival in its own right.

The company’s achievement in putting a Ring cycle on the road – it’s already been seen in Leeds and Nottingham and goes next to the Southbank Centre in London and then Gateshead – is extraordinary, as is the fact that this Ring was born in four painstaking years, one part at a time, as the climax to a full opera season.

In theory it’s ‘in concert’, but Opera North hit on a way of presenting Wagner with more impact by avoiding traditional staging and scenery than many have by using them. They use film projection to conjure up the magical world of giants and dwarfs, gods and heroes, warrior maidens and lands beyond view … plus clearly captioned story-telling and visible translations of the texts, so audiences know exactly what is supposed to be happening.

There is also theatrical lighting and symbolic costuming, so the actor-singers can give their roles real character – and the orchestra (and chorus, when needed) are centre-stage, not just to do justice to the music but to make it clear that it’s the centre of it all.

Retiring music director Richard Farnes is the star of the show: remarkably, Opera North found at the end of his highly versatile time in charge that he was a genius in this style. Staging, design, lighting and projection are all by Peter Mumford.

The quality of singers is what makes Wagner work, and Opera North’s team, built over those four years, have proved a magnificent mix of youth and experience. Casts for the complete cycle are based on those for the original separate parts, though some changes have had to be made (even to the last minute – such is the perilous world of opera singing).

Among them I’m particularly looking forward to hearing again Michael Druiett (Wotan in Das Rheingold), Jo Pohlheim (Alberich), James Cresswell (Fasolt), Ceri Williams (Erda), Kelly Cae Hogan (Brünnhilde), Mati Turi (Siegfried) – and of course the amazing octet of Valkyries.

If you couldn’t get tickets this time, it will all be on Radio 3 in July and video-streamed later in the year.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 3 June 2016

EVERYTHING goes quiet in Manchester in the coming week (except at the Royal Northern College of Music), but Chester is celebrating its annual music festival, and a number of our city’s finest are playing there.

The programme features Manchester Camerata in two symphony concerts at St Thomas’s Church, Parkgate Road, with four young conductors being put through their paces. As in previous festivals, these events are the passing-out parade for some of the RNCM’s top international talent in the stick-waving business, and the maestros are Adam Kornas, Carlos Agreda, Matthew Weites and Thiago Santos.

Distinguished RNCM soloists include Kana Ohashi (in Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E minor, paired with Prokoviev’s ‘Classical’ symphony, June 8) and Jeremy So (in Mozart’s piano concerto no. 25, alongside Haydn symphonies and more Mozart, June 10).

That’s just the start to a festival programme that packs a lot of punch in its 11-day duration. Other highlights include Martin Roscoe (piano), Giovanni Guzzo (violin) and Hannah Roberts (cello) in Schubert and Rachmaninov (Chester Town Hall, June 12), a lunchtime recital of Beethoven and Schubert by Martin Roscoe (same venue, June 13), and a series of performances by Ensemble Deva, the resident and highly flexible group led by Giovanni Guzzo.

There’s an evening devoted to modern US minimalist Steve Reich’s music on June 13, and Saint-Saëns’ Carnival Of The Animals and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (among other pieces) re-arranged by horn player Tim Jackson for the occasion on June 14. This time the group includes oboist Rachael Clegg, clarinettist Lynsey Marsh, and pianists Ian Buckle and Ben Powell.

The next evening Ensemble Deva morphs into a string quartet to play a Schubert programme, and on June 16 and 17 it becomes a baroque band to play J S Bach, CPE Bach and Vivaldi (joined on the second evening by soprano Mary Bevan). All these are at the town hall, except the last, which is at St Thomas’s.

But its pièce de résistance is the final concert, when it’s giving Mahler’s Das Lied Von Der Erde at St Thomas’s, in a chamber version with mezzo-soprano Jane Irwin and star tenor Joshua Ellicott, conducted by the Royal Northern College’s own Clark Rundell.

As Clark himself says: “All the festival is made in Chester, and much of the creative responsibility for our programme rests with our musicians themselves. Our own world-class Ensemble Deva is at the heart of the schedule.”