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.