Friday, 30 December 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 30th Dcember 2016

WHAT does 2017 hold for the classical music fan? Plenty, to be sure, and today I’m picking out just a few of the highlights of the first part of the year.

At the Hallé, Sir Mark Elder leads an Elgar festival at the Bridgewater Hall (March 9, 11 and 12). It features the first symphony, a ‘Beyond the Score’ focus on the Enigma Variations, and the oratorio The Dream Of Gerontius with the Hallé Choir and a great trio of soloists: David Butt Philip, Sasha Cooke and Iain Paterson.

Then, in a special event to celebrate his 70th birthday on June 2 (a date he shares with Elgar), Sir Mark will be conducting Schoenberg’s huge choral and vocal work, Gurrelieder. The Hallé and BBC Philharmonic join forces, and soloists include Alice Coote and Johan Reuter, with Sir Thomas Allen as the speaker – on June 4.

The BBC Philharmonic present Bach’s St Matthew Passion on April 14, plus visits from conductors Vassily Sinaisky (April 23) and the exciting young American, James Feddeck (April 1 – he also conducts the Hallé in the May ‘Opus One’ concert).

Opera North’s visit to The Lowry brings three operas based on fairytales – Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel And Gretel; a light-hearted version of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) … and, in a rare staging, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden. Hansel And Gretel is on March 8 and 11 (plus a schools matinee on March 9), La Cenerentola on March 9 plus a matinee on March 11, and The Snow Maiden on March 10.

There’s also opera from the Royal Northern College of Music: Handel’s Theodora, performed from March 24.

Our other world-famous centre of musical education, Chetham’s School of Music, is to open its new £8.7m Stoller Hall with a weekend of special events from April 21 to 23. The gala concert on April 23 is conducted by Stephen Threlfall and Sir Mark Elder, with two orchestras, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately (daughter of Kevin ‘Lewis’ Whately) and international piano virtuoso Paul Lewis, both of whom trained at Chet’s. A series of starry concerts follows.

Paul Lewis is also appearing in recital at the Bridgewater Hall on February 12 – one of the international series events there, which also include top orchestras the St Petersburg Philharmonic (January 27), Vienna Tonkünstler (February 24), Kremerata Baltica (March 24), and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (with the complete Brandenburg Concerti on May 11).


Friday, 23 December 2016

Article published in Mancheater Evening News 23rd December 2016

LET’S take a look back over the classical highlights of 2016. My problem is what to leave out, but here goes at a top ten …

1. Opera North’s complete, semi-staged Ring Cycle, on its once-only visit to The Lowry, was in a class of its own. The prolonged standing ovation at the very end was testimony to the gratitude of those who witnessed the whole undertaking, and the vision of Opera North’s outgoing musical director, Richard Farnes.

2. In fully-staged performances the company had two outstanding new shows: Annabel Arden’s production of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, and Orpha Phelan’s of Britten’s Billy Budd – each a story of betrayal, heroism and love. In both the musical teams were among the best Opera North has yet presented: for me, Andrea Chénier just had the edge.

3. The Hallé and Sir Mark Elder are well into a Ring Cycle, too. Their third recording-cum-concert was of Das Rheingold, at the Bridgewater Hall last month. It was magisterial and entertaining with opulent orchestral sound and inspired dramatic life.

4. In May Sir Mark brought a celebration of Dvořák to a thunderous close with a performance of the oratorio St Ludmila. The Hallé Choir (trained by Matthew Hamilton) made a showpiece of it.

5. And Sir Mark’s inspiration of combining scenes from Verdi’s Macbeth with Beethoven’s ninth symphony (in October) paid off in the quality and thrill of performance, with the Hallé Choir marvellous again.

6. The BBC Philharmonic have been doing great things. Vassily Sinaisky’s reading of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony with the CBSO Chorus in May was characterised by extraordinary beauties and splendour.

7. And there was no doubting the emotional appeal of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ symphony as the Philharmonic and chief conductor Juanjo Mena gained a standing ovation from many after their performance in February.

8. Of visiting orchestras to the Bridgewater Hall, the Oslo Philharmonic, in March, stood out. Its chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko gave us a thrilling and eloquent account of Mahler’s fifth symphony, with velvety string tone and impressive brass playing.

9. Manchester Camerata’s all-Mozart programme at the Royal Northern College of Music, with music director Gábor Takács-Nagy and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet soloist in two piano concertos, was a pinnacle of their winter season.

10. And Handel’s Tamerlano, from the Buxton Festival and The English Concert (with Paul Nilon, Marie Lys and Owen Willetts), was the pick of the festival’s operas this year.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 16th December 2016

IT’S not too late to get a CD Christmas present for a music lover, so here are highlights from this year’s releases that have come my way.

A Christmas Celebration. Hallé Choirs and Orchestra conducted by Stephen Bell (Hallé HLL 7545)

Stephen Bell has put his own stamp on the Hallé’s Christmas concerts now, and here’s the ideal way to take them home with you and hear the Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir and Hallé Children’s Choir plus great orchestral playing – including the unique Hallé rendition of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride.

Handel’s Messiah. Hallé Choir, Sheffield Philharmonic Choir, Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli (The Barbirolli Society (SJB 1086-7)

One for nostalgia. There are many recorded versions of Messiah, but if you want to recall the atmosphere of those Belle Vue performances with massed choral voices under Barbirolli, here’s how it sounded in 1964 – complete with the penultimate ‘Hallelujah!’ simply shouted.

Sibelius: Symphonies 5 and 7, En Saga. Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder (Hallé HLL 7543)

Sir Mark’s account of the hugely popular fifth symphony is bracing and magnificent, and his approach to the single-movement seventh captures its mix of depression and gigantic optimism.

Donizetti: Le Duc D’Albe. Soloists, Opera Rara Chorus, Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder (Opera Rara ORC54)

This is an opera Donizetti never completed, so it’s virtually impossible to stage it. But Sir Mark – with the Hallé as his pit band – has captured the magic of what might have been, and his solo team are magnificent.

Rêve D’Enfant. Sophie Rosa, violin, Benjamin Powell, piano (Champs Hill Records CHRCD123)

Cheshire violin soloist Sophie brings her lovely sound to bear on music by César Franck, Ravel and Eugène Ysaÿe, including the A major Sonata by Franck (you’ve heard it on Classic FM without a doubt).

Ginastera: Orchestral Works vol. 1. BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena (Chandos CHAN 10884)

This is the music of Argentina’s major classical composer of the 20th century, and though a mixed bag is well worth investigating. I liked his atmospheric Pampeana no. 3 particularly.

Summer. Jonathan Scott at the organ of the Bridgewater Hall (Scott Brothers SBDRCD008)

Jonathan Scott’s recitals at the Bridgewater Hall, with their inventive programming, have become very popular, and here’s a great souvenir with a typically eclectic round-up of music from Vivaldi to Philip Glass.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Article published in Manchester Evening News 9th December 2016

A CHRISTMAS show with a difference comes to the Royal Northern College of Music on December 14. It’s the world premiere of Luca’s Winter – a fairytale fantasy written by saxophonist Tim Garland and performed by the RNCM Big Band and Chamber Orchestra together (with Tim on solo sax), and EastEnders and Hollyoaks actor Stefan Booth as narrator.

Tim, a research fellow at the RNCM, has created this new concert work for a 60-strong ‘super-ensemble’ of band and orchestra, and his story – expressed by writers Nora Chassler and Don Paterson – is about a young musician called Luca who gets tangled up in a succession of well-known winter-time tales. Geppetto, the man who made Pinocchio, is in it, so are the Elves and the Cobbler, the Little Match Girl, the Red Shoes … and even three spooky characters like the ghosts from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“I wanted to create a story with characters that are pretty recognisable,” Tim told me. “Luca finds himself in a city where there’s a sort of labyrinth of tales. We’ve got Cinderella-type character, too, called Maarja, with a stepmother. She’s the love interest – and the city has past, present and future all wrapped together in it.”

There are aspects of The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra in it, too: all the characters are represented by instruments or groups of instruments,  and Luca is a guitar player but finds himself with the wrong guitar – it all works out in the end.

Tim says the music integrates jazz and classical styles. “The jazz element in the music is integral to the plot of the story. The Big Band sounds give the idea of being in a metropolis. But it’s not really show music: it’s concert music with some contemporary sounds. I think people can handle that if the context is programmatic – telling a story – like with a film score.

“My idea all along was to make a piece that engages everyone – I thought ‘Why don’t I write a great big piece for band and orchestra – and make it Christmassy?’ Hopefully it will come around again in years to come.”

Conductor for the 90-minute piece is the RNCM’s Clark Rundell, who’s well experienced in bridging the jazz-classical gap. “I think in future this sort of music will become less of a freak and more of a regular occurrence,” he says. “I’m really enjoying getting to know this score.”

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Review of La Vie Parisienne at the Royal Northern College of Music

It’s always a thrill to see young performers at the RNCM visibly mature and gain in confidence as the first night of a new show there takes place.

Offenbach’s operetta, La Vie Parisienne, was not an easy ask for them. It needs to have froth and fizz and lightness all the way through, and things like that don’t come instantly when you’re nervous and haven’t done the piece with a full live audience before. Even the orchestra seemed to take time to enter into the spirit of the evening.

But the foundations were there. Director Stuart Barker had the massed forces on stage (with the first of two teams of principals, as the operetta is, as usual, double-cast) well drilled and aware of their positions. Simone Romaniuk had created an incredibly versatile, inventive and adaptable design – magically transformed, as it should be, for each new scene while we heard the entr’actes – with clear, colourful sets and evocative projected backdrops. She also created the lovely costumes, putting the story into the 1930s with a sure hand (we find the lifestyle of drone-like English aristos and the foppish Parisian demi-monde quite believable in the era of Jeeves and Wooster).

So we’re seeing a day in the life of Raoul de Gardefeu, who wants to tempt English Lord Ellington and his wife to sample Parisian delights apart from each other, so he can seduce the noble lady. Lord E fancies a night with the high-class escort Métella (a pun in that name, I guess), but we know he’s never going to get that far, and he just gets drunk. There’s a sub-plot involving a Brazilian millionaire also out on the town and the humble glove-maker Gabrielle, who turns out to have a lot more to her than first meets the eye. Act Two is set at the Moulin Rouge and then a posh restaurant, with attendant can-can dancers and similar delights. In the end Lord and Lady are reconciled, everyone else pairs off happily, and Parisian life goes on.

Using Alistair Beaton’s English translation, and with voice-coaching by Natalie Grady, the show was done, and heard, in plain English (no surtitles). Half of the skills called for were those of acting, not just singing, and in the cast that I heard some performers were really good at that. Some also have personalities and voices that work just beautifully in operetta style, too – I can mention Fiona Finsbury’s Métella, John Ieuan Jones’ Lord Ellington, Matt Mears’ Brazilian and Charlotte Trepess’s Gabrielle in particular (but I haven’t seen the other cast at all) – and everyone threw themselves into the movement and dancing, which was skilfully contrived by the amazing Bethan Rhys Wiliam.

By the time we were in the Moulin Rouge the soufflé had really risen, under the sure hand of conductor Andrew Greenwood, and it was no wonder the sails of that windmill in the backdrop suddenly accelerated.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Article published in Mancherster Evening News 2 December 2016

IT will be an all-singing, all-dancing Christmas show this year at the Royal Northern College of Music – Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne.

The college’s opera department, under the leadership of Professor Lynne Dawson and Kevin Thraves, is out to wow audiences with the classic operetta, which will be conducted by Andrew Greenwood (in charge of the award-winning RNCM performances of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year) and directed by Stuart Barker, director of training and productions at British Youth Opera.

I had the chance for a peek at rehearsals, as the cast and chorus were on stage learning their steps from choreographer and production assistant Bethan Rhys Wiliam, in the set designed by Simone Romaniuk – cleverly adaptable from being a railway station in Act One to the Moulin Rouge in Act Two (and two other places besides).

Kevin Thraves, RNCM deputy head of opera and chorus master for the show, told me: “Bethan is working on this show full-time now, as it’s a piece that’s full of dancing. It’s a light-hearted French romp, with disguise, mistaken identities, love and infidelity – and everything works out OK in the end, with toasts to Paris and the Parisiens.

“This year is its 150th anniversary, and we’re using the English translation by Alistair Beaton, a writer, satirist and theatre director – he’s translated a number of operas, and this one was originally done for the D’Oyly Carte company in 1995.

“We’re doing six performances this time, with two matinees, and they are selling really well. There are 16 principal roles, and we have double-cast it, so a lot of students get their chance to shine. There are 40 in the chorus, mainly our undergraduates, and around 40 in the RNCM Opera Orchestra.

“RNCM Junior Fellow in Conducting Manoj Kamps is assistant conductor and will take the performance on December 13 himself.

“Stuart Barker is really well used to working with young singers, and he’s doing a lot of improvisation work with the cast and chorus – he likes to draw little stories out of them as they perform.”

Among the principals are singers Alexandra Lowe and Neil Balfour, who have had major roles in RNCM opera before. And the thrill of a show at the college is always that you may see a new star born …

La Vie Parisienne is at the RNCM on December 7, 9, 11 (matinee), 13, 15 and 17 (matinee).