Saturday, 25 February 2017

Review of Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra on 24th February 2017

Opening their UK tour at the Bridgewater Hall, the Vienna Tonkünstler under Yutaka Sado gave a worthy account of well-worn repertoire, yet without giving much impression of inspiration sparking between conductor and players (at least until the end).

The real delight of the night was Emma Johnson’s playing of the solo in Mozart’s clarinet concerto, which was individual and inimitable.

The Tonkünstler may not be the Vienna Philharmonic or indeed the Vienna Symphony, but they play in the central European tradition. Last night they fielded 51 strings, the extra one being a seventh double bass, and this, together with the placing of the violas front-of-stage, gave their string sound an enviable fullness and solidity in their Schubert (‘Unfinished’ Symphony) and Brahms (Symphony no. 1).

But fullness and solidity is not everything, and more questionable was the placing of the trombones high up and central at the back, which made their role unsubtle and not really appropriate for music of their tradition (the St Petersburg Philharmonic, heard here recently, tucked them away at the side and level with those in front of them, and that was with even more string players).

Sado’s reading of the Schubert brought dramatic possibilities from the available dynamic contrasts in this conformation, with a whispered, mysterious beginning (and introduction to the mid-movement) and portentous effects from the brass whenever they played. The second movement displayed the solo playing of the higher wind principals – particularly the clarinet – and the last page was weighed out as if Schubert always meant it to end there, giving a suitably ponderous conclusion.

Cut down to 31 for the concerto, the strings sounded far better, with lively articulation and a warm cushion of sound in the Adagio.

Emma Johnson knows this piece as well as anyone on earth, probably, and she had every phrase thought out and built to make a narrative (at times a drama – and even a comedy).

Her tone was gentle, but never obscure, self-effacing but unmistakably graceful, and the finale became like an evening of chamber music as she nodded her thoughts towards the concert master and the orchestra responded.

The Brahms sound was from full-strength strings again, with the contra bassoon and double basses giving a firm underpinning, and by the time they reached the second movement there was something more intriguing, too – lyricism and a degree of passion from the violins. The third movement, for a ‘grazioso’, was quite intense and heavy-footed, but the finale took off, with its sense of growing anticipation, brazen tone from the horns at last coming into its own, and vigorous acceleration as they swung into the big tune.

So all ended well, and the crowd loved it.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Article published in Manchester Evening News 24th February 2017

TOM Elliott is a violinist who took a break from music – he formed his own company to fit solar panels to houses – but now he’s back with the real mainspring of his life.

He runs the Glossop Music Festival, is married to Hallé principal flute Katherine Baker and dad to their sons Arthur, Henry and Felix, and teaches violin. Most recently he’s become general manager of the Manchester-based Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Tom is a former member of the Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields, and after he and Katherine moved to Glossop, he and others started their own festival there two years ago.

“Running the Glossop Music Festival was my route back into music,” Tom says. “It whetted my appetite and got me in touch with my old friends.

“Last summer I was contacted by the NCO, and I realized this job fulfilled all my passions for making great music with great people.”

He was taking over an ensemble first formed in 1967 and planning for its 50th anniversary season, to start later this year.

“I’m aiming to build on a reputation which is already second to none,” he says. “We have very loyal audiences, particularly for our concert series in Macclesfield Heritage Centre, and I want to expand what we do.

“My first concert after I joined was with violin soloist Chloë Hanslip, who I played alongside a few years ago, and we will be appearing with her later this year at the new concert hall (The Stoller Hall) at Chetham’s School of Music. There will be further concerts there next season.

“The concert with Chloë is in aid of the Mind Music campaign, raising money for dementia charities, and we are performing for them at the Buxton Festival (the NCO is orchestra in residence) – as well as doing informal concerts and therapy workshops in care homes.

“We have a four-day education project in Stockport, followed by a concert at Stockport town hall. I think it’s rare for a professional orchestra to play there, and it brings educational work together with serious concerts, which I’m very keen on.”

l The Northern Chamber Orchestra appears at Macclesfield Heritage Centre with soloist Steven Osborne on March 4, and at Stockport Town Hall with cellist Matthew Sharp on March 17. On March 21 Raphael Wallfisch, the orchestra’s president, will perform Bach’s six Suites for solo cello at Hallé St Peter’s, Ancoats.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Review of Psappha concert at St Michael's Ancoats on 16th February 2017

Manchester’s leading contemporary music ensemble brought its 25th anniversary season to an end on Thursday with a concert featuring two world premieres and – strangely enough – the solo percussion work by Xenakis after which the group is named but which founder Tim Williams had never performed in public before.

Admittedly, he said beforehand, he’d been ‘obsessed’ by it since 1986. The reaction to his fulfilment of that long-held ambition can only be respect and awe. It’s overlapping, fiendishly complicated patterns of rhythm would (you would think) require at least four performers, and probably a conductor as well, to synchronize. It was a tour de force.

The striking thing, to me, about the two totally new works was the extent to which they are audience-friendly (unlike, for instance, Saariaho’s Light And Matter for piano trio, or Elliott Carter’s Intermittences for piano solo, which were also on the bill: they were brilliantly played and have their formal, in the case of Saariaho, and sonic, in the case of Carter, intellectual fascination, but that’s about as far as they go).

Emily Hall uses lyrics written by Agneiszka Dale and soundtracks made by Mira Calix to complement and interact with her music for violin, cello, clarinet and piano in Advert – Wedding Dress.

In five brief sections it expresses aspects of separation … fairly clearly of the end-of-an-affair sort. The first includes abrupt and sudden impacts which give the music the character of melodrama to an unseen sequence. The second is a tender lament accompanying a poem about getting rid of the unwanted wedding dress – it’s so full of grief and confession that the following Stonewalling, dominated by its ‘beat’ soundtrack, seems like an embarrassed reaction to the heartbreak that has just been revealed. Then there’s a kind of varied four-note round, as the lonely soul makes friends with mice in the wall (‘Hello Micky [sic], hello Minnie!’), and a grim tango to lines from a disappointed migrant about the ‘Shitty West’, ending with what seemed like a lavatorial sound-effect.

It may all seem very depressing, but there’s warmth in the musical writing that instantly appeals, and you could never say it didn’t make sense.

Tom Coult’s Two Games And A Nocturne (for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano and percussion) is in three parts (doing, as he said, ‘what it says on the tin’) and playfully uses a variety of sources – a touch of blues, novel high cello pizzicato effects, a gradually accelerating, jerky rhythm which feels quite like fun before it slows and then heads off into a skeltering, syncopated allegro. The Nocturne is a gentle soundscape, with what would be heard by many as birdcalls from piccolo and glockenspiel – very Brittenish.

Structurally both new works are crystal-clear, with titles to help, and so was Nightswimming, a piano trio by Joe Duddell, because it comes across, psychologically, as a set of variations, building speed and liveliness to a peak and then going down the other side. There’s fascinating counterpoint in the writing, and, as in every piece, Psappha’s musicians played with consummate skill.

Article published by Manchester Evening News 17th February 2017

EMMA Johnson has been described as ‘Britain’s favourite clarinettist’. She won the BBC Young Musician competition in 1984, as a teenager, and she’s never looked back.

She’s one of the UK’s biggest-selling classical artists, and concerts take her all over the world. On February 24 she’s appearing at the Bridgewater Hall, as soloist with the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra and conductor Yutaka Sado, in the ever-popular clarinet concerto by Mozart.

Emma is a north-westerner by birth: her dad worked for the BBC in Manchester, and until the age of four she lived in Cheadle Hulme. “I learned to speak with a Mancunian accent,” she says, “and subconsciously I always find it warming to hear.

“Manchester played a big part in my life, too, as that Young Musician final was held in the Free Trade Hall, with the BBC Philharmonic.”

The family moved south, and from that time a love of music ruled her life.

“I was given a recorder at the age of four and a keyboard when I was six, and my parents didn’t need to make me practise. In fact they worried about me becoming a musician because it wasn’t a ‘safe’ career.

“At junior school we had free instruments and lessons, and I took up the clarinet with a good local teacher.

“Benny Goodman was a hero for me. His recordings inspired me – and the fact that he straddled the genres of classical and jazz.” (She does the same herself – with jazz encores at concerts, and recently brought out a jazz album with her own trio).

“Also Jack Brymer was on the jury at that Young Musician competition, and I had lessons with him after it. I think I learnt most from just listening to him: he had a way of making the clarinet sound like a singing voice … I’ve always tried to make it an extension of me, not just an instrument.”

She never went to music college, but studied English at Cambridge, except that “… I was getting so many professional engagements I had to change to reading music. That taught me how to analyse pieces, write orchestrations, and so on, and now I do a lot of my own arrangements.”

Emma finds she plays the Mozart concerto four or even more times every year. “It seems like an old friend. There’s something magical there – and I find something new every time.”

Friday, 10 February 2017

Review of Halle Orchestra concert on 9th February 2017

Cristian Măcelaru conducted a programme with the Hallé that drew a decent crowd, perhaps as much as a result of astute programme planning as by the presence of a notable local hero as its soloist.

Whichever it was, the presence of virtuoso organist Jonathan Scott at the controls of the mighty Marcussen of the Bridgewater Hall, plus music by Sibelius, Poulenc, Dvořák and Janáček, made an attractive combination.

The American conductor began with a sumptuous account of Sibelius’ tone poem, The Oceanides, building to a weighty climax and ending with beautifully blended wind and brass as calm returned.

The Poulenc organ concerto is almost unique in concert repertoire, using the full power of the king of instruments and yet charming and quite jazzy, at times, also. Jonathan Scott was completely on top of the work’s demands, registering with great faithfulness to Poulenc’s instructions and making every aspect of his writing count. The orchestra, led by Lyn Fletcher, enjoyed their role, too, with lively playing of the Dick Barton-style theme of the first Allegro, under Măcelaru’s hand.

Six of Dvořák’s Legends came after the interval, in an all-Czech second half, and Sir Mark Elder’s orchestra know how to play this composer well by now. While he was away preparing Rusalka for the Met, they and Măcelaru graced this music with deep affection, lovely nuances of rhythm and expression, and wind solos of great individuality, especially from principal clarinet Sergio Castelló López.

Janáček’s Taras Bulba rhapsody made a vivid finale to the concert, with Jonathan Scott returning to the organ, this time in a ‘backing’ role. Janáček was an organist who found love and creativity in late middle age (so there’s hope for anyone), and his vivid sonic effects were given full rein as the story-telling music wove its spell.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Arts Desk review of BBC Philharmonic concert on 4th February 2017

Two young guys called Ben graced the BBC Philharmonic platform at the Bridgewater Hall on Saturday – looking almost like Ant and Dec if you let your imagination wander.

Twenty-seven year old Ben Gernon had just been announced as the orchestra’s new Principal Guest Conductor (while predecessor John Storgårds now rejoices in the title of Chief Guest Conductor … it almost seems a bout of alternative facts is coming on), and this was his Bridgewater Hall début. Piano concerto soloist was Benjamin Grosvenor, a virtuoso Manchester knows well.

Stickless throughout, Gernon began with Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony, played with what today are considered modest string forces of 41 – although three times what Beethoven had for the premiere – and with modern timpani. So it wasn’t to be a ‘period’ performance in sound quality, but the grunt of five double basses gave real bite in the nether regions.

It was, at least at first, very much in the spirit of classicism in other ways, though – brisk speeds, crisp articulation, drama in the vivid contrasts of loud and soft. Gernon managed to combine this with a degree of sophistication that is not always apparent, as the famous approach to the first movement’s reprise was all smoothness and (at the point where the horn makes his unexpected entry) he made the harmonic clash dim almost to extinction.

In my score, Beethoven apparently thought it a good idea to repeat the first movement opening section, but the BBC had set a target of 45 minutes for the duration of the entire work, so what did he know? The non-repeat actually changed the movement’s whole centre of gravity, making the coda its main musical statement – and in due course allowing the fourth movement to become the weightiest of them all.

That was one stimulating aspect of Gernon’s reading – a thoroughly goal-orientated balance to a work that can alternatively be a battle of equal and opposing forces. The other was the presentation of the funeral march second movement. This was a real lament, no mere formality, the woodwind interjecting like a stabbing pain and the climax in the central episode, when it came, quite spine-tingling.

The Scherzo was fast and slick, a wild hunting ride, and tinged with growing excitement, and so the finale (with its allusion to Prometheus) came as a giant exulting in his strength. There were no doubts now: rhythmic energy and the clash of contrapuntal lines were something to revel in and served to create a magnificent rush of optimism.

Benjamin Grosvenor was soloist in Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto no. 2 – a great display piece for a pianist but one that hardly usually plumbs the depths (what stays with you is the ear-worm of a second-movement scherzo). But there were depths to be plumbed, and Grosvenor found them in his tender, poetic playing of the lyrical theme in the first movement.

Liaison between solo and orchestra was a little slippery at one point there, but there were no such problems in the second. Grosvenor dazzled throughout, making it not just a conventional show-off but a thing of some subtlety – in which he was matched by the BBC Philharmonic under Gernon. The finale was another tour de force for the soloist, brilliantly delivered, with the Philharmonic, mostly, keeping up.

Debussy’s La Mer had the same clarity and textural control as the Beethoven symphony, though now with 62 strings (among them 12 cellos, the better to render the four-part passage where Debussy actually asks for 16 players). The Philharmonic is at its best making a rich and glorious sound with all hands on deck, leader Yuri Torchinsky played the violin solos beautifully, and the climax of ‘From dawn to mid-day on the sea’ was very effective, if a shade over-percussive.

In the ‘Games of Waves’ scherzo, woodwind and brass soloists showed what they were made of, too, and there was delicacy and a sense of atmosphere throughout. Gernon knows how to give his musicians the freedom to do what they do best.

The finale (‘Dialogue of the wind and the sea’) had drama and tension from the outset, and Gernon saw the structural necessity of relaxing it, big-time, at the right moment before whipping things up again for a dynamic ending.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Article published in Manchester Evening News 10th February 2017

PIANIST Paul Lewis – Merseyside born and Chetham’s trained – is on an international recital tour this year, and one of the venues (which includes the UK, Europe, US and Asia) is the Bridgewater Hall. He’s here on February 12.

“Manchester is near the beginning, so the programme will be quite fresh!” he says, cheerfully. He’s playing Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Weber – a programme where he says all the music has a common quality … dance.

“I wanted to come back to Bach, because I haven’t played him in public for a while. The Partita no. 1 is all dance movements – and Beethoven’s sonata no. 4 has that quality, too.

“I’m playing three Chopin waltzes, and then Weber’s second piano sonata – a piece that used to be very popular, and isn’t heard so much now, but it’s still the most fantastic music.”

Paul – who made a big impact at the London Proms a few years ago, playing all the Beethoven piano concertos – grew up in Huyton, and his first keyboard was a toy organ his parents got him for Christmas.

“At my school there was no piano teacher, and I started with the cello. But I was really terrible at that,” he says. “But at 14 I was accepted for Chetham’s Music School in Manchester. I’d come from the local comprehensive, and now I was mixing with like-minded people. My memories are all of enjoying my time there.”

He went to the Guildhall School in London, and in his third year took part in a masterclass with the pianist, Alfred Brendel. It led to individual teaching from the great interpreter – “I used to go to see him five or six times a year, and it was wonderful and very inspiring.

“He’s not interested in sorting out your technical problems, or even in what makes you tick as a player – he’s there to offer you his views on the music. You have to take what you can and translate it into your own terms.

“After talking to him about a piece, I couldn’t even play it afterwards! There was so much to think about.”

Paul lives in Hertfordshire now, with his wife Bjorg Lewis (a cellist) and their three children. He was appointed joint artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition a little more than a year ago, and made a CBE in the Birthday Honours last year. The boy done good.