Thursday, 30 March 2017

James Feddeck - maestro to the rescue

The day young American maestro James Feddeck first visited the Hallé is one I won’t forget. I don’t think he will, either.

“I got a phone call, and I was on the plane within an hour and a half,” he recalls. Feddeck was called in two years ago when another conductor pulled out through illness. He took on most of the prepared programme for three concerts here and scored a personal triumph.

Now he’s back in Manchester, to conduct the Hallé (in the May ‘Opus One concerts) and before that the BBC Philharmonic.

Since appointment as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra (one of the USA’s finest) from 2009 to 2013 he’s become known for saving the day elsewhere, too.

“But I’m also happy to come to an orchestra with advance notice!” he quips – and he’s getting those bookings, too – from Berlin, The Hague, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota, Toronto … the list goes on.

James Feddeck grew up in New York in a family who loved music but were not professional musicians. “My grandfather thought every civilized home should have a piano,” he says, “and he bought each of his three sons a grand piano.

“When I was very young I started to play by ear – music really did find me.”

He was a church organist at the age of eight, and at 11 was asked to train the choir.

“It was miraculous that I was even allowed to try,” he says. “I had to plan things and run rehearsals. So I came to all this through choral music and singing – I often try to encourage orchestral players to be more like singers.”

He’s an instrumental player as well, having taken the oboe through music college (as well as organ, piano and conducting – he went to the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio because it was one of the few that would let him have four principal studies at once).

He started his own orchestra there (“by begging friends – I bribed them with pizza and do-nuts,” he says), and it grew to the point where there were over 80 and he was conducting major symphonies.

“Musically there’s always my favourite moment with an orchestra, when we’ve been looking at each other and thinking ‘who is this?’ – and then we’re just in the music together.”

l James Feddeck conducts the BBC Philharmonic on April 1 at the Bridgewater Hall.


 James Feddeck credit Terry Johnston (l) and Benjamin Ealovega (rt)

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Review of Manchester Collective @ Islington Mill

The enterprising musicians of Manchester Collective presented a programme at Islington Mill, Salford, on Saturday night (repeated at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester the next day) with a new work they commissioned themselves from Huw Belling. It’s a kind of song cycle – though, as artistic director Adam Szabo pointed out before it began, almost a little dramatic piece in reality – based on Anthony Burgess’s novel, Inside Mr Enderby.

Enderby is the aspiring poet of Burgess’s imagination (but also something of a self-persona) who can only produce when sitting on the loo.

One of his life experiences is sending love letters to another man’s wife, and so it was appropriate to precede the new piece with Janáček’s ‘Intimate Letters’ string quartet (no. 2) – a glorious example of 20th century Romantic writing, albeit by an elderly organist with a crush on a girl 38 years younger than himself.

The Collective are a very good quartet indeed, and I loved the contrasts of sweetness and tenderness with the extremes they created in this music. The last pages caught a note of desperation in the passion, with an ensemble sound almost too big for the tiny space of Islington Mill.

Huw Belling’s work – reminding me of Maxwell Davies’s Mad King songs at times – was given vivid life by baritone Mitch Riley. It’s a 35-minute work and attempts to incorporate quite a lot of the contents of the book, not just the supposed poetry. Pierce Wilcox produced the text for Belling to set.

We begin with Enderby on his loo, listening to the voice of posterity – or is it his posterior? And so things go on – plenty of lavatorial humour and flatulence. We were invited to laugh out loud if we found it as funny as the novel, but I don’t think anyone did.

Perhaps it’s a bit too long: the third section introduces us to some of the characters in the story and then re-introduces Vesta Bainbridge once and the other poet, Rawcliffe, twice. When we get quotation from other composers – particularly the long transcription from Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet – it’s not quite clear why these works or why these bits.

Other parts of the work are admirably concise, and I really liked the chaconne-like lament in the quartet’s music near the end.

Manchester Collective founders Rakhi Singh, Adam Szabo and Simmy Singh

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Review of RNCM's Theodora

Alexandra Lowe as Theodora credit Robert Workman

Theodora is an oratorio by Handel (his next-to-last) and staging it presents problems, naturally. Director John Ramster has come up with some very good ideas in his production for the RNCM, heaving it into the present day and fastening on to the opening situation of conflict between political power and religious conscience.

So when the Roman bossman Valens commands the people of Antioch to honour the Emperor Diocletian, we see a US-style political rally, with all the stooges jumping up and down and yelling their support. There’s even a reference, later on, to ‘the president’s decree’ which sounds very like another inhuman executive order from the White House.

Theodora is a Christian maid who refuses to bow the knee, as do all the Christians, led by Irene – who speaks for all who reject ‘the vain pomp of proud prosperity’.

So far, so good – we’re seeing people who don’t buy into the myth of money-making, growth and financial success as the way to make anywhere great again (as the real early Christians rejected emperor-worship precisely because it idolized security and economic wellbeing).

But the rest of the story is about how Theodora is condemned to be a prostitute – Ramster’s made a colourful scene evoking a world of parties, pom-poms and gaudy nightspots, to bring that bit into the 21st century – and her true love, Didymus, tries to rescue her. At this point we’re less than two-thirds through and the librettist threw in a chorus about the Biblical widow of Nain, rather taking the dramatic pace out of things. The last section sees them both condemned to death and bravely going to meet their martyrdom, but the show doesn’t offer a trial scene, following the ‘classical’ tradition of putting all the real action off-stage. Ramster has Theodora shot on stage, oddly – and then rising from the dead to play her final scenes.

The excellent chorus have a lot of praying and moralizing to do (as well as briefly being depraved pagans) in this Greek-tragedy approach to story-telling, and Ramster has planned their movements and cameo acting moments well, at least until the last half-dozen scenes.

Kieran-Connor Valentine as Didymus credit Robert Workman

The musical side of the performance, conducted by Roger Hamilton, was very good on opening night, with the first of two casts.

Alexandra Lowe stood out in the title role (not her first great performance for RNCM opera – she was Helena in the Manchester Theatre Award-winning A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Métella in the recent La Vie Parisienne): her diction is above reproach, a quality which was not consistently present with some others. This is the work from which ‘Angels, Ever Bright And Fair’ comes, and she made it the show-stopper it was meant to be.

Kieran-Connor Valentine sang Didymus, her love interest. He’s a counter-tenor (the other cast has a girl mezzo in the role) and brought a formidable technique and big reserves of power to the task. The duets for the two of them were highspots of the evening.

Bass-baritone James Berry made a very fine job of Valens, the power-crazed bad guy (from his first big aria about ‘Racks, Gibbets, Sword And Fire’ to ‘Ye Ministers Of Justice’, and Matthew Palfreyman, as Roman soldier Septimius, displayed a tenor voice of lovely tone (at his best in ‘From Virtue Springs Each Gen’rous Deed’ in part three – it’s a taxing role) and distinct ability to make recitative work.

Mezzo Rhiain Taylor gave a convincing performance as Irene, with a smooth and creamy sound throughout, and Michael Gibson was a fine Messenger.

The last RNCM operatic assault on Handel was Xerxes in 2012 – a real opera. This was a tougher nut to crack and, though admirable in stylistic intentions, was appreciable more for its singing than its drama.

James Berry as Valens credit Robert Workman

Friday, 24 March 2017

Manchester Collective and Salford Choral Society's Tom Newall

There are new faces in classical music these days, and tomorrow two are in evidence on the same night.

The Manchester Collective is a new group of musicians, all principal players from the Aurora Orchestra, Manchester Camerata and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which began a series at Islington Mill, Salford, last month. Live-streamed, it garnered 16,000 views.

The next concert is called ‘Intimate Letters’, performed tomorrow night at Islington Mill and again on Sunday afternoon at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester.

The music is Janacek’s String Quartet no. 2 (‘Intimate Letters’), with world premiere performances of a song cycle by Huw Belling called Inside Mr Enderby, based on the Burgess novel. Baritone soloist is Mitch Riley, an Australian opera singer now based in Paris.

Artistic director of the Manchester Collective, Adam Szabo (also their cellist), says: “Our aim is to bring a greater breadth of top-tier, live chamber music to the north west. This area is incredibly rich in orchestral terms, but we don’t get the range of chamber music they have down south.

“Our marketing is all online: we engage audiences through social networking. We’ve some exciting guest artists planned for our next season, and we’re planning for bigger venues.”

The Collective commissioned the song cycle from Huw Belling: Adam calls it ‘a sort of series of character studies of an Alan Partridge-type character – Mitch Riley is a singer who specializes in physical theatre.”

Meanwhile in Manchester (the RNCM), Salford Choral Society presents its first concert with new musical director Tom Newall since his appointment last November. Tom is a musical entrepreneur in his own right, having started the Piccadilly Symphony Orchestra in the city three years ago – now it has a regular series for ‘Young Explorers’ at the RNCM and is working in music education in Manchester and Lancashire.

He guest-conducted Salford Choral Society last year and was invited to be their musical director immediately afterwards. “They’re friendly, open and eager to learn,” he says. “We’re beginning to make long-term plans together.”

Tomorrow’s programme features Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, in the original version for two pianos and percussion (and with Salford Children’s Choir), Brahms’s ‘Song of Destiny’ and Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, with an ensemble led by Piccadilly Orchestra principal Pete Mitchell.

The pianists are Roderick Barrand with Benedict Kearns in the Orff and with Tyler Hay in the Bartok.

Manchester Collective founders Rakhi Singh, Adam Szabo and Simmy Singh

Tom Newall

Friday, 17 March 2017

Anne Sofie von Otter

The Royal Northern College of Music is host on March 19 to one of the biggest names in opera and classical singing of our day – mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. She’s visiting for a masterclass with students of the college, and the event is free (but ticketed).

I asked Anne Sofie to share some of the tips she gives to young singers at the start of their careers and the advice she can share from a lifetime in the business.

“I started out wanting to be an anonymous choir singer, but was soon finding myself singing solos and having to face the audience,” she recalled.

“I was extremely self-conscious, and couldn’t move a finger without feeling incredibly stupid. While my musical confidence was strong and instinctive, my stage person was insecure and stiff. I painfully realized I had to work on that – and I still do!

“As in most professions, if you are going to get anywhere, you need to work hard. That seems very straightforward, but it takes a certain kind of energy and interest that I think you need to have in you.

“A good vocal technique is just the start. There’s the ear and the sense for style, mastering languages, the stage person, the experience, the open outlook, the daring ...”

And as if that weren’t enough, she went on: “The ability to crack a score – a bit of piano playing helps – and a certain interest in other music genres, for the general outlook.

“Practice and patience … and during all this, you must have a sense of that you are enjoying all the work, otherwise it isn´t for you. You have to be open, and you have to be hungry.”

Anne Sofie says what’s changed since she was starting out is the need to sell yourself. “Your manager used to do that for you, at least if you were lucky and found yourself a good one. Now you certainly have to help! It can mean social media, filming, recordings, all of which you are expected to do yourself.”

She says she enjoys teaching and working with young singers. “A bright young person, hungry to learn and open – that can be very fun and satisfying for us both. And I like to include the pianist as well: it’s a duo thing, after all.

“To me, the big key is unlocking your fantasy, your imagination and creativity.”

Anne Sofie von Otter credit Mats Bäcker

Monday, 13 March 2017

Review of the Hallé's The Dream of Gerontius

The Hallé can still create a great Manchester musical occasion as no other organisation can, and the performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, concluding a three-day Elgar Festival, was one of those not easily forgotten. It was also a sell-out, which is gratifying in these tough days for concert-givers.

Sir Mark Elder (who shares his June 2 birthday with Elgar – he’ll be 70, and the composer 160) has conducted this great oratorio with them a number of times, and made an award-winning recording of it. It was no surprise that he returned to it with real affection and enthusiasm, and he is still finding wonders in it: in some ways it was the most thrilling realization yet.

He had a vast choir to command, including the Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir, who were deftly used (as in the 2009 recording) to provide a pure and ethereal semi-chorus. He also had three remarkably gifted soloists for the work: David Butt Philip, an RNCM almnus who has been electrifying opera audiences here and in Leeds (and elsewhere) for several years, as Gerontius; Iain Paterson, a Wagnerian bass-baritone we’ve heard as Sachs and Wotan and who has all the gravity required as the Priest and Angel of the Agony; and Sasha Cooke, an American mezzo-soprano who is probably new to many of us here but has all the purity of tone and strength-in-reserve needed for the role of the guardian Angel.

In particular, David Butt Philip caught the all-too-human characteristics of the protagonist, whom Elgar wanted to be a red-blooded, passionate, fallible man, not a cardboard saint. He brought a touch of desperation to the conclusion of ‘Firmly I believe’ – as well a dying man might feel – and reality to his whole portrayal.

The choral singing was magnificent: beginning with pin-drop softness and not revealing its full weight until well into the work. But I don’t think the first and last chords of ‘Praise to the holiest’ have ever had quite such impact, and the fugal passages both in that number and the preceding chorus of Demons were tightly delivered and surging with power.

The Hallé Orchestra, led on this occasion by Adi Brett, played with immense distinction, employing silky string tone and with the ebb and flow of Elgar’s figurations clearly audible in a transparent sound that ranged from the most delicate dolce to massive fullness (and Darius Battiwalla’s contribution on the organ was very finely judged and added much to the breadth of sound).

Sir Mark paced the drama of the work with consummate skill, whipping up excitement for the judgment scene in Part Two and creating a glorious contrast with the serenity of paradise that followed. It was a memorable night.

l Broadcast on Monday 20 March on Radio 3.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Review of Opera North's The Snow Maiden at The Lowry

Giving Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden its first full professional production in the UK for 60 years, Opera North seem to have found an unexpected hit on their hands. The one performance in Salford had the biggest evening house so far of this week’s operas.

It’s a lovely work, built on a Russian folk myth about a girl given to a childless couple who will die if ever love melts her heart of snow. In the end it does, but the story is really an allegory of the changing seasons and the cycle of nature, and the finale is a paean to the warming sun.

John Fulljames (who’s known for work at Covent Garden and has directed a string of masterly shows for Opera North in recent years) wisely avoided doing the allegorical thing too straight, even though ‘Spring’ sings twice, first as a youthful beauty and later as a fading one. He’s invented a supportive story set in a small-town clothing factory in (I guess) the late Soviet era, as the Cold War is just thawing. So Lel, the spirit of love, is a trouser-role for mezzo and the young guy the girls all fancy. Snow Maiden and Kupava, the sensual everyday character who’s jilted at her own betrothal, are fellow-workers. There’s the best use yet of the video resources available in Giles Cadle’s setting, with evocative projections on a gauze at the front and a comic mapped-out road journey at the back, when the cruel Mizgir (who rejects Kupava for love of Snow Maiden, but finally loses her when she melts for him) is bundled off to see the Tsar, a long, long way from home. The Tsar himself is a benign and quirky character, more village elder than blue-blood, and a little reminiscent of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas. He encourages the workers to make the most of midsummer’s night, and by the end they’re all at work on baby clothes.

So Fulljames keeps a lightness of touch while making us feel for the young innocents in love – an experience which (as every Romantic knows) is heart-breaking when it comes.

The music is vintage Rimsky, atmospheric, folk-song-like and wonderful to listen to. Leo McFall keeps a cool hand on all of it, getting many beauties from the orchestra.

And there are outstanding performances from several of the principals – most of all (for sheer presence, stagecraft and vocal ability) RNCM-trained Heather Lowe as Lel. Having seen her impressive work as a student singer, it’s great to see her blossom now.

Aoife Miskelly, as Snow Maiden, is amazing, too – not only does she have to sing like an angel, but elicit our sympathy even when silently watching the others in their frolics. She is a real discovery. Elin Pritchard brought vitality and reality to Kupova, and Phillip Rhodes was a beefy, simple-but-sympathetic Mizgir.

Opera North pillar Yvonne Howard (as Spring) was as ever beautifully poised, rich and alive, and other stalwarts were James Creswell (Father Frost), Joseph Shovelton (Bobyl) and Claire Pascoe (Bobylikha). Bonaventura Bottone had a lot of fun playing the Tsar.

Review of Opera North's La Cenerentola at The Lowry

I’ve admired Aletta Collins’ work as a director for Opera North (Girl of the Golden West) and choreographer for Rambert (Awakenings) before, and with this production of Rossini’s Cinderella opera she has given Opera North a gem of a comedy.

It’s all about dancing, in her book: we find the ‘Baron Hardup’ of the story (Don Magnifico, Cinderella’s step-father) runs a Scuola di Danza at the start, with the mums sitting in a line at the side of the floor while their little ones practise their cha-cha-cha.

The Nasty (rather than Ugly, here) Sisters think they’re better dancers than her, but we pretty soon realize she’s a lovely mover and they are not.

There’s no fairy godmother in Ferretti and Rossini’s version, but a court philosopher called Alidoro, and he is the one to whom Cinderella shows kindness when he knocks at the door, disguised as a beggar. He ensures she shall go to the ball, but not before she’s actually met the prince, who has changed jackets with Dandini, his valet, the better to spy out the true nature of the girls in Magnifico’s household. The disguise is kept up through the ball scene, and only when the glammed-up Cinders has confessed she loves him as a man of lowly estate does he reveal his true identity.

She’s a feisty girl, though, and won’t say who she is, leaving the ball quite deliberately and giving the prince a bracelet to match to one of her own. Of course he seeks her out, rejects the advances of the Sisters and their father (who just won’t give up), and takes her back to the palace, where she finally wins their hard hearts through magnanimity, and all dance happily ever after.

It’s set in a kind of present-day Italy, but in a fantasy world where dreams come true (restrained and effective use of back-of-the-stage projection), and the sets (Giles Cadle) and costumes (Gabrielle Dalton) are ingenious and useful – especially to get the large Opera North men’s chorus on and off.

The music is beautifully light on its feet, under Wyn Davies’s baton. He goes for the very edge of practicality in his speeds for the patter movements, but even in The Lowry’s stage acoustic it all stays together (just!), the staccato ‘ensembles of stupefaction’ (of which this has several priceless examples) are razor-sharp, and rhythms dance along.

We had a lovely Angelina (=Cinderella) in Wallis Giunta – the warmth of her voice was apparent from the opening Una volta c'era un rè – and it’s a taxing role, but one which she sang with grace and endless energy, along with an eye for the comedy.

Henry Waddington (RNCM-trained) has done excellent work for Opera North before, but never had quite the opportunity to show his comic talents as here as Don Magnifico, and his voice was very impressive in Sia qualunque delle figlie. Sunnyboy Dladla (the prince) has a gloriously pure tenor tone which fits the character (and he can dance) – maybe the very high notes didn’t have Flórez-like power, but not many singers can do them at all. Sky Ingram and Amy J Payne, as the Sisters, were a hoot and sang strongly, too, and John Savournin (Alidoro) and Quirijn de Lang (Dandini) completed a very well chosen cast.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Article publshed in Manchester Evening News 10th March 2017

SIR Mark Elder, music director of the Hallé Orchestra, is 70 on June 2 this year – a birthday he shares with English composer Edward Elgar, whose music he loves and of which he is one of the world’s great interpreters.

It’s Elgar’s 160th as well, so there’s a double reason for the Hallé to have an Elgar celebration, led by Sir Mark, in Manchester at the Bridgewater Hall.

Last night he began it with Elgar’s Symphony no. 1, playing it, unusually, at the beginning of the concert programme, and introducing some lesser-known Elgar works after it.

Tomorrow he’s hosting a special presentation called ‘Beyond the Score’, based on the composer’s Enigma Variations and the stories behind them. This is one of a series of dramatized evenings originally devised by Gerard McBurney for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as a way of introducing new listeners to some of the world’s greatest music.

And on Sunday he and the Hallé, with star soloists, perform Elgar’s most popular oratorio, The Dream Of Gerontius.

“It’s a big birthday for Elgar, and we said we’d like to do something significant and exceptional to mark it,” Sir Mark says.

“These concerts are full of music that will be familiar to those who love Elgar – but others won’t yet. I’ve been very involved with Gerard McBurney’s ‘Beyond the Score’ projects in Chicago, and I wanted to bring this one.”

I asked Sir Mark to look back on his time with the Hallé, which began in the year 2000. He took over when the orchestra had gone through a baffling financial crisis and, to some extent, a loss of confidence.

“There were two things about that initial situation,” he says. “One was that the orchestra were very hungry for someone to believe in them, care for them and haul them up to their best level.

“The other was to develop the orchestra’s relationship with the public and be the spokesman for the organization, to make the public realize that the Hallé’s tradition was still alive.”

He’s taken them to venues around the country and the world, and their recordings have won high praise.

And he’s not resting on his laurels yet. “Conducting is an art so deeply connected to one’s inner life that, as the years go by, you’re able to aspire to things that, 20 or 30 years ago, you didn’t think you would be able to ...”

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Review of Opera North's Hansel and Gretel at The Lowry

The first of Opera North’s ‘fairytale’ sequence of operas, at The Lowry this week, is one of those pieces that were originally designed for the Christmas season (like The Nutcracker in the ballet repertory) in the 19th century, and really only take on magic qualities in that context even now.

Coming to us in the second week of Lent, it couldn’t quite click into that slot, but there was much to admire in the performances of the three central characters – Hansel, Gretel and the Witch.

The story is meant to be very much the same as you read in books: the children live on the edge of a forest and wander into it when they’re supposed to be picking strawberries; they discover a house all made of sugar biscuits and take a few munches; the witch who lives inside catches them and is about to bake them both for dinner when they outwit her, dispatch her into her own oven and live happily ever after.

In Edward Dick’s production there was an attempt at transposition into the present day, with the kids in the kitchen of a high-rise flat, glued to their electronic devices and tempted by a fridge-ful of high-fat-content goodies rather than sylvan gingerbread.

It doesn’t quite work, and you wonder why a poverty-stricken inner city family have acquired a very expensive hand-held video camera which is used throughout the first two acts to create jerky, live projected back images, dissolving with limited success into impressions of a forest. Are they lost in a gaming world, rather than the great outdoors? Maybe. It all comes back to reality with a clunk near the end when the curtain falls, awkwardly, to conceal an all-too-traditional resetting of the set, so that we can see there’s a happy Christmas at the close.

The projection is very effectively used for a pre-filmed sequence to accompany the long postlude to act two, though, which re-interprets ‘The Sandman’ (a German folklore character we don’t really have here, who puts children to sleep with, I suppose, fairy dust) as a dream in which grandma who gives them a great time at the seaside.

The great thing about this opera is its folk-song inspired music, which has a simplicity and charm all its own (and is written with such contrapuntal skill that even reduced to its bare lines on five instruments, as Clonter Opera tried once, it sounds marvellous – still more in full orchestral dress). Christoph Altstaedt conducted the Orchestra of Opera North with skill and subtlety.

Above all, the performances from Katie Bray (Hansel), Fflur Wyn (Gretel) and Susan Bullock (mother and Witch) are the outstanding feature of the show, the former two singing with purity and clarity all through, and the latter really getting into the spirit of the thing in a kind of Great Witch-ish Bake-Off in act three. Makes a change from Elektra, I suppose.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Review of Manchester Camerata concert on 2nd March 2017

Manchester Camerata give relatively few old-fashioned concerts these days – I mean the sort that are done in purpose-built concert halls, with a conductor, soloist and conventional orchestra strength – because they’re busy crossing boundaries and attracting new audiences.

But when they do return to the traditional path, they do it extremely well, and especially when music director Gábor Takács-Nagy is in charge. This time, at the Royal Northern College of Music, there was the additional distinction of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist in two Mozart piano concertos. He and they have recorded nos. 17 and 18 already for Chandos, and this concert was part of the process for their next CD, of nos. 14 and 19. They are combining the concertos with the ‘Salzburg Divertimenti’ which the extraordinary Wolfgang created at the age of 15 – sometimes played as string quartets, but sounding fantastic done by a string chamber orchestra of 22 players.

Gábor Takács-Nagy lavished as much care on the Divertimento in D (K. 136) as others might on a full-blown symphony. Announcing at the outset his intention to make his audience smile as they heard the music, he did the same himself and inspired the musicians to play likewise. There are delightful contrasts of theme and echo in the writing, and he was alive to them all (especially the fade-away ending of the repeat of the first part of the opening movement). The Andante (like a stately sarabande in this performance) had had each phrase meticulously prepared and showed beauty in every one; the Presto joyous in its fugal effervescence, zippy in tempo and vital in its contrasts.

The same distinctions were there in the opening of Piano Concerto no. 14 (K. 449) – a gentle, feminine second idea clearly characterized – and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet became an instantly affable partner in the dialogue that followed his own entry. His playing of the cadenza to the first movement was impressively flamboyant (an unexpected in some details). The Andantino, with mutes on, came over like one of those dreamy, hushed, expectant arias we know from Mozart the opera composer, and the final rondo, skilfully judged in pace to be a kind of all-breve, Toytown march, had Bavouzet bouncing in and out of the textures like a pianistic Tigger.

The second part of the concert was on the same pattern.  The Divertimento in F (K. 138) is a deservedly popular essay in the Nachtmusik style, beginning with a march-along, serenade-style movement and continuing with another lovely aria-style melody. The rondo finale, another Presto, was full of life and energy.

Piano concerto no. 19 (K. 459) involved the seven required Camerata wind players smoothly (we’d had oboes and horns in the previous concerto, beautifully integrated), and their soloistic qualities came to the fore in expert style in the first movement. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet injected a sense of mystery to the fantasy section and made smart work of Mozart’s rather flashy cadenza.

There was a touch of the wind ‘harmonie’ sound in the lilting Allegretto (very laid back, almost like a social dance), but still a very sophisticated one, and the cheeky rondo at the end was an opportunity for the soloist to catch his moments and toy with them. So much, in fact, that they decided to play it again as an encore – though not, in the event, quite so brilliantly as the first attempt.

There may be those who dislike hearing Mozart’s concertos on a modern (Yamaha) piano and with modern orchestral instruments, but these performances showed that the classical spirit can be caught every bit as well with small numbers in the band and a keen sense of style on the part of all concerned.


Thursday, 2 March 2017

Manchester Evening News article 3rd March 2017

OPERA NORTH are in town again next week, with three very different shows, all based on fairytales.

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel And Gretel opens the series at The Lowry on Wednesday (repeated on Saturday March 11). Yes, the composer really is Engelbert Humperdinck – one of the late 19th century’s most gifted Romantic masters, not the 1960s crooner whose name was Gerry Dorsey before he borrowed the German monicker …

Humperdinck tells the traditional story with all the richness of Wagnerian drama, in one of the most enchanting takes on a children’s story ever written. It includes at least two numbers you may know already – one, as ‘Brother, come and dance with me’, was sung by the Manchester Schoolchildren’s Choir on the B-side of their 1929 hit record, Nymphs And Shepherds; and the other is the famous Evening Prayer (‘When at night I go to sleep’).

Top north west-born opera soprano Susan Bullock CBE is singing the roles of the Witch and the children’s Mother, and the young ones themselves are Opera North favourites Katie Bray and Fflur Wyn.

Rossini’s Cinderella – at The Lowry on Thursday and repeated as a matinee on Saturday March 11) – is the most traditional of the operas, if bel canto singing is what you go for. It’s not quite the panto story as we know it these days, but closer to the tale which has existed in most European cultures for centuries.

And it’s definitely a comedy in this version., which opens with Cinderella scrubbing the floor of a ballroom dancing school. Directed by multi-talented director and choreographer, Aletta Collins, it features Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta as Cinderella and South African tenor Sunnyboy Dladla as her prince, Don Ramiro. Manchester-trained favourite Henry Waddington is Don Magnifico.

The third opera is The Snow Maiden, by Rimsky-Korsakov – getting its first professional English production for over 60 years and in Salford on March 10. Directed by John Fulljames, the poignant Russian folk tale has Irish soprano Aoife Miskelly making her Opera North debut in the title role.

There’s a parallel to Andersen’s The Snow Queen and, of course, to Disney’s Frozen in the story – the heroine wants nothing more than to live amongst humans, but she hides a tragic secret: her heart is made of ice and, if she falls in love, it will melt.

The music includes one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most famous orchestral pieces, the Dance Of The Clowns.