Thursday, 27 April 2017

Review of the Halle's Opus One programme: Elgar, Weber, Tchaikovsky

Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé had a great programme to offer in the ‘Opus One’ series this week at the Bridgewater Hall: Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Weber’s Clarinet concerto no. 2, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5. I heard it on Wednesday afternoon.

Elgar by Elder and his Manchester band is now pretty close to a perfect combination, and the English ‘dolce’ sound from the strings – guest-led by Ruth Rogers – along with a judicious flavouring of portamento was a real pleasure to hear. There was a precise and gradually intensifying fugue, and a glorious tutti at the end.

Weber’s music (for which we were down to 30 strings) is another thing, and Sir Mark and soloist Julian Bliss (‘the man with the golden-keyed clarinet’) gave us a bouncy excursion into classical style, with a slow movement whose introduction touched a soft, ethereal dimension.

And the Tchaikovsky was graced with 10 cellos and eight basses to bring something of the deep mahogany tone Russian orchestral music really needs. They’ve done this before, and done it extremely well, as Sir Mark keeps things under control and on the sane side of hysteria, while whipping up the tensions and ensuring his brass are incisive and powerful. Laurence Rogers played the second movement horn solo beautifully, and it was no accident that the movement itself gained some spontaneous applause. Sir Mark’s waltz tempo in the third was definitely ‘moderato’ – as it says – and in the finale he held the pressure back sufficiently to ensure an integrated and conclusive coda.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Masterpieces at the Halle and folk songs at the RNCM

The winter-spring ‘season’ of orchestral concerts is slipping away quickly, but while we have the chance to enjoy his work with the Hallé there’s still a set of three ‘Opus One’ concerts conducted by Sir Mark Elder at the Bridgewater Hall (26 April at 2.15pm, 27 and 30 April at 7.30pm).

The music begins with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings – Sir Mark and Elgar are an ideal combination for many Manchester listeners now – and continues with Weber’s Clarinet Concerto no. 2 (soloist Julian Bliss) and then Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

The latter has been, since Barbirolli’s time with the superb horn playing of Ifor James in its slow movement, a Hallé calling card, and Sir Mark’s previous performances of it have been magnificent, imbued with a breath of life from east of the Urals.

His time with the orchestra this past week has provided some memorable music-making, not least in the Thursday concert which unveiled a new British symphony – Huw Watkins’ – in its premiere (you can see my review of that evening on, and he was even busy on Sunday afternoon at the opening of the lovely new concert hall at Chetham’s School of Music, The Stoller Hall (see

The Royal Northern College of Music has a host of delights to offer in its Day of Song this year – on 30 April. The theme is ‘Folk Connections’, looking at the interaction of folk song and art music using it and inspired by it.

The day showcases folk connections in song through a series of colourful and vibrant recitals.

Artistic director Jonathan Fisher says: “Many of the great composers of the past and present have been influenced by folk song, connecting music with place, expressing a people’s identity and cultural heritage.

“We are delighted to feature a complete performance of Luciano Berio’s rarely heard Folk Songs for mezzo soprano and chamber ensemble, Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, and folk song arrangements by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten.

“Thomas Schulze, RNCM tutor in Lieder, will give an insightful masterclass on settings by Mahler and Strauss of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, then in the evening we finish with an exciting concert featuring the RNCM Chamber Choir and RNCM ArkEnsemble in Gypsy Songs by Dvořák and Brahms.”

Arnim and Brentano’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn is an interesting component in 19th century musical consciousness (a bit like the ‘Ossian’ poems, supposedly by a Scottish bard, but really all made up). Ostensibly the texts of ‘old German songs’, they may bear little relation to real folk tradition. But then, did Macfarren’s Popular Music of the Olden Time, either?

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Review of English String Orchestra 'Wall of Water' concert at the Bridgewater Hall

The one orchestral concert in the Bridgewater Hall’s ‘Waters of Life’ mini-festival was by the 12-strong English String Orchestra, and though its title was ‘Wall of Water’, the connections between all the items on the programme and the theme of water were, well, a bit fluid.

It was conducted by Kenneth Woods, who, with violin soloist in two of the pieces Harriet Mackenzie, and the composers of two of them, Deborah Pritchard and Emily Doolittle, introduced the music in a half-hour seminar before they played it.

The real common factors then began to be clearer: all the music was by women composers, and all of it was written in the 21st century (and of course all was either written for, or playable by, an ensemble of 12 strings). Congratulations to the Bridgewater Hall for having the courage to put on such a programme as the major evening event of a self-promoted series: it didn’t pull an enormous crowd, but similar enterprise anywhere else might have pulled no audience at all.

First was Thea Musgrave’s Green, written in 2006 specifically for 12 strings of the Scottish Ensemble. It pits a melodic, harmonious sound against a discordant one that starts in the bass and gradually drowns the former – except for a soft high note on solo violin which just survives at the end. A metaphor for humankind’s environmental despoliation, perhaps?

It was quite hard going for this listener, as it takes some time to make its point, but that could never be said about the violin concerto, Wall of Water, by Deborah Pritchard (premiered only three years ago, by this orchestra and this conductor, who commissioned it). It was accompanied by projections of the paintings series of the same title by Maggi Hambling. Pritchard can take her musical responses directly from colour awareness, and these pictures for her embody ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ colours, and a mix of the two. I think it would probably work well without the projections, too, as it’s got a clear structure built on a soft, rumbling pedal effect which recurs twice and the solo violin’s cadenza-style introduction, which itself returns. The transformation and revisiting of the material makes real musical sense, and the solo was beautifully played by Harriet Mackenzie.

Emily Doolittle’s falling still is ostensibly about the natural world – with a varying solo violin song and a chord progression in the accompanying strings which is almost mechanistically prescribed. Actually the high-pitched notes of these chords seemed like an ethereal cobweb of sound to me – mysterious and subtle.

The ensemble finished with Kaija Saariaho’s Terra memoria, a version of the composer’s work for string quartet, and dedicated to ‘those departed’. It runs a considerable gamut of emotive tones – the ‘harmonic trills’ (alternation of fully stopped notes and harmonics) sounding like ghostly wailings, the more vigorous music like cries of protest, and the unisons like desperate clinging to the known world. It all ends very softly with a descending ostinato and whispered alternation of major and minor intervals … a resolution of sorts.

Since we so rarely hear a bill of concert music such as this in our major hall, the opportunity was one Manchester should be grateful for.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Clare Hammond, the young 'Miss Shepherd' of Alan Bennett's film

There are probably more people who have seen the exciting young piano soloist Clare Hammond play, without knowing it, than those who’ve been at her concerts.

The reason being that she is the pianist who played the young Miss Shepherd in the film scripted by Alan Bennett, The Lady In The Van.

Maggie Smith, of course, was the elderly Miss Shepherd, but as the film progresses you realise she was once a brilliant concert pianist. Clare was the one who played Miss Shepherd in the flashback concert sequences and the poignant scene when, as a nun, she plays a piano again.

Clare herself is appearing in a solo recital at the Bridgewater Hall on April 21 in the ‘Waters of Life’ weekend (also part of Manchester Mid-day Concerts Society’s series); on May 13 she’s back in the north west in recital for Rochdale Music Society at Heywood Civic Centre, and that will include several elements from today’s programme.

She’s a champion of women composers: on both occasions she’ll begin with a suite by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who was employed at the court of Louis XIV in the late 17th century. “Her compositions are on a par with those of Lully and Couperin,” she says. “People are surprised when they hear them, and this is a fantastic work.”

The water theme comes into focus when she performs Five Aquarelles, by five British composers, written in 2012 to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Debussy (Clare premiered this music at the Two Rivers Festival in Birkenhead).

She also plays two Nocturnes by Fauré, and Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse, said to have been inspired by Watteau’s painting Embarquement pour Cythére (a boat trip).

At Heywood the full programme will include the Jacquet, Fauré and Debussy, plus music by James Francis Brown, Beethoven, Dutilleux and Stravinsky (Petroushka Suite).

Clare started the piano, unusually, because she was told to. “I was given some piano lessons for my sixth birthday,” she says. “It was suggested I might like to learn, anyway, and it took a little while, but I did come round to it.

“When I was eight I heard a concert at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham and was blown away: I decided then that I wanted to be a professional concert pianist.

“The thing you don’t realise when you’re young is just how much determination and stamina you need to make it.”

Clare Hammond: left, as herself; right, as the young Miss Shepherd in 'The Lady in the Van'

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Very much a 'live' St Matthew Passion

BAROQUE music specialist and conductor Nicholas Kraemer has worked with musicians in Manchester for well over 30 years, principally with Manchester Camerata. He’s also conducted both the St John Passion and St Matthew Passion by J S Bach in this city before.

On Good Friday afternoon he directs the St Matthew at the Bridgewater Hall, with the BBC Philharmonic and Manchester Chamber Choir, as part of the Philharmonic’s main concert series.

“It’s a huge operation, and that’s why I don’t do it very often!” he says. “But I can’t imagine anything better than doing it with the BBC Philharmonic’s musicians. My work with them previously has been with the music of Haydn, mostly. But I also did live broadcasts of Bach cantatas, with them and Manchester Chamber Choir, some years ago.

“When we play Haydn, we make a great deal of effort to reclaim the sound of the period the music was written.

“Thirty years ago I might have had to remind orchestral players about the styles of 18th century music, but I have edited everything I direct, so they know my intentions pretty well – phrasing, articulation and so on. I get very little resistance to my ideas and requests!

“And Manchester Chamber Choir’s sound is perfect, I think, for this.”

Nicholas says he feels a natural draw to the story-telling aspect of Bach’s music, but he’s aware that it was written also as a devotional work for a church congregation.

“I don’t think you have to be a believer to conduct the St Matthew Passion – but you do have to believe that Bach believed.

“There’s a connection between the narrative and the reflective. Having re-studied the work recently, I’m amazed by the way the chorales (congregational hymns) respond to the action in the story, and I will make that very clear in the performance in the way I start them – it’s not just an academic observation.”

It’s become almost fashionable to stage the Bach Passions as if they were operas, and Nicholas Kraemer comments: “I’m not doing that – but all the singers will be ‘off-book’ (singing from memory) and moving as close to the obbligato instruments that accompany their arias as possible, bearing in mind that we have microphones to think about.

“It’s going to be very much a ‘live’ performance, and people in the hall will have something to look at, as well as listening.”
Nicholas Kraemer - 'You do have to believe that Bach believed'

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Opera from the streets

Streetwise Opera is one of the most original of classical music groups. Last Easter, in Manchester – following work they’ve done in other cities for years – the group of top-level professional musicians, along with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, presented a version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion at Campfield Market which included a whole chorus of local people who had experienced homelessness.

The show, co-produced with HOME arts centre, was televised on Easter Sunday, and many found it profoundly moving. Composer Sir James Macmillan wrote a ‘sequel’ to the Bach work, in conjunction with the Manchester Streetwise group, who came up with their own words for it.

They’d prepared for the event by working with the Booth Centre, the Mustard Tree and the Central Hall in Oldham Street, and some taking part found it a life-changing experience.

This year, at HOME itself, there are to be free performances, again by a group combining top professionals with people who have experienced homelessness, including a short new work by Manchester-based composer Anna Appleby, called Kingdoms Come and Kingdoms Go.

“I went to a workshop in London where we were inventing scenes inspired by Benjamin Britten’s Canticles – that was the work Streetwise did 15 years ago in its first concert. We devised our scene and I brought it back to Manchester, going to the Booth Centre, where the group put their own lyrics around it.

“What people will see is a five-minute opera scene, using words the performers themselves helped to write. There’ll be a lot of other stuff, too, to make a one-hour concert, including the excerpts from opera and musicals that the group learn at weekly sessions in the Streetwise project.”

Anna is a native of Newcastle upon Tyne who came to the Royal Northern College of Music after Oxford. She’s also Rambert Dance’s ‘music fellow’ this year, on an award that gives her the chance to work one-on-one with top choreographers.

“My great passions are writing for the stage and working in collaboration,” she says. “I’d like to write a full-length opera one day, and a full-length ballet.

I am hugely inspired by Streetwise Opera’s ethos. Being a composer-in-residence and working with performers who have experienced homelessness combines my love of opera with my desire to amplify the unheard creative and political voices in our society.”

Streetwise Opera is at HOME, Manchester, at 7pm on April 11.

Streetwise Opera in last year's The Manchester Passion: right - Anna Appleby
(picture Ruth Appleby)