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.