Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Review of Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra at Bridgewater Hall

The Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra is big and takes its music seriously. Listen before the concert starts, and they are busy warming up and practising their notes, sometimes whole sections together.

And their best music is a delight to hear. For me, that was in the pieces by their native, contemporary composers, and particularly the Duo, for sheng, cello and orchestra, by Lin Zhao. It featured two soloists who are international stars in their own right – Jian Wang, the cellist (who has appeared with the Hallé as soloist, too), and Lei Jia, the sheng player.

The sheng is a wonderful instrument. It’s like a miniature, mouth-blown organ, but much more than a harmonica, as the reeds are amplified by bamboo resonator pipes, making its tone both richer and more penetrating. In the hands of an expert (as it was) it’s a highly expressive, beautiful solo instrument and can play simple chords, too – which it did in this piece to make occasional accompaniment to the cello. It has its percussive side, also – like a baroque krummhorn (or organ krummhorn stop) it speaks with such attack that its staccato sounds like a harpsichord.

The two make perfect partners, above all, in yearning, keening song, and much of the language of Lin Zhao’s piece is what we would probably call ‘English pastoral’ – modally-influenced harmony and some contrapuntal lines written in a mellow, choral style, often with long ‘pedals’ underlying the melodies. It also has big climaxes which contrast with its meditative moods. The three titled sections are not particularly differentiated, though, and overall it’s a bit too long, with endless repeated patterns in the final section. Jian Wang’s playing was gloriously varied and richly expressive.

(For an encore, the two played another piece by the same composer, a lovely arrangement of a traditional, pentatonic song with strings accompaniment).

The other Chinese-composed music was Xiaogang Ye’s Cantonese Suite, in four movements with pictorial titles.

Written in 2005, this is more akin to lush Hollywood film score music, presenting more modal melodies with ‘added note’ harmonies, fluently orchestrated and showing off the wind soloists of the orchestra to good effect. The tunes are haunting and the simplicity of the idiom beguiling, but the moods seem to change little despite the words of the titles.

The orchestra, under its ‘resident conductor’, Huan Jing, also brought two ‘standard’ (to our ears) works. They must know they’re inviting comparison with some of the world’s best when they bring this kind of music to a hall such as ours, and they didn’t come out of it very well.

It was probably a mistake even to try playing Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, as it’s so evocative of a certain English coastal atmosphere, demanding subtlety and skill to be realised as it should be – here it was mechanical, joyless and lacking in expression. There were some technical weaknesses, too – ragged violin ensemble, poor balance, too much big tone, and too little variation in pace or shaping of the phrases.

Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 version) made a weighty finale, though suffering from some of the same problems. The woodwind shone in solos, but there was a tendency to rush the faster passages and miss giving the music chance to breathe.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Review of Ravi Shankar's Sukanya

Ravi Shankar’s Sukanya is a hybrid theatre piece, combining the soundworld of operatically trained singers, a large orchestra and the technical resources of a big theatre with the language of Indian classical music and Kathak dance.

Based on a story from the Mahābhārata of a princess who disturbs a holy man so deep in meditation that ants move harmlessly over him – but she destroys his sight in the process, marries him and comes to see more in his sightless soul than any rival can create, even by a magical transformation. It’s ultimately a hymn to genuine love.

Shankar didn’t finish the piece, and his long-time collaborator on other western-eastern musical projects, David Murphy, has completed it and orchestrated the score – much of which is played by a (to us) conventional orchestra but with the addition of sitar, shenai, tabla and other Indian percussion.

Visually it’s more lavish than the stills might suggest, as the ‘backcloth’ is a patterned screen on which moving images are projected, and the light and colour they create are an important part of what you see. The orchestra (the London Philharmonic), chorus (BBC Singers) and other musicians are all on stage (with the conductor rather obtrusively, but necessarily, placed front centre), so steps and a platform are really all the set there is, and the actors and dancers move within the limits set, or else on the wide but shallow strip available front of stage.

With costuming, lighting and sound all expertly handled, the impact of Suba Das’s production is still considerable, and in addition there’s the skill and inventiveness embodied in the music. Wisely, the subtle microtonally decorative world of the sitar and shenai are kept audibly insulated from the bigger, heavier sounds of the orchestra – and yet the latter is Indian, too, with its lines built on single scales and long-held drones and its rhythms very cleverly integrated with those of the Indian tradition.

The singers were all effective and some of outstanding quality, including Susanna Hurrell (Sukanya) and Njabulo Madlal (one of the two ‘Aswini Twins’, the slightly sinister clowns of the scenario). The dancers were highly accomplished, especially Rukmini Vijayakumar, and the choreography credit to Aakash Odedra (who also performs) is an indication of pedigree there.

As an attempt at a new kind of music theatre, it has its negative side. The text, by Amit Chaudhuri, occasionally lurches into bathos or crudity. There is no drama, as usually understood, in the slow-moving plot, except the often-repeated mantra, ‘Who can foresee the outcome?’ The music falls into numbers, each anchored in its scale, although there is variety and tension-making inside those frameworks.

One aspect I thought weakened the whole construction was the episode early in the second half when Chyavana, the holy man, tells his bride his story of learning to be a musician when he was young, and explains how Indian and Western music differ. This is accompanied by projection images of Ravi Shankar himself – presumably it’s adapted from his own memoirs and thinking, but it seems an oddly didactic interpolation in a story to which it’s really unrelated.

Maybe it’s there to fill things out a bit. But the show doesn’t drag, and it’s all over inside two hours including an interval, so you couldn’t say it was stretched to Wagnerian proportions. Bravo for that.

Sukanya opening scene

Sukanya: Susanna Hurrell and Alok Kumar (left); Njabulo Madlala and Michel de Souza
Pictures: Bill Cooper

Friday, 12 May 2017

Chinese orchestra comes to town

It’s unusual to find a Chinese classical orchestra visiting the UK, and even more of a surprise to find that one of them is celebrating its 60th anniversary by coming here. But that’s the case with the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. On its current short British tour it plays at the Bridgewater Hall on Monday (15th May).

The Guangzhou Symphony is said to be the only Chinese orchestra to have toured and performed on five continents, and it’s one of the first Chinese orchestras to establish a full concert season at home. Its real story seems to begin just 20 years ago, since when it has built a strong following for performances at its home, the Xinghai concert hall on the banks of the Pearl River in

Its resident conductor is Jing Huan, formerly a conducting assistant for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and assistant conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony (she also conducts the GSO’s youth orchestra). The GSO’s Music Director is Long Yu, who directs all three of China’s leading orchestras – the China Philharmonic and Shanghai Symphony as well as the GSO – and is also founder and president of the Beijing Music Festival.

At the Bridgewater Hall, Jing Huan conducts the GSO in music including UK premieres of two works commissioned by the orchestra from leading Chinese composers.

Film composer Zhao Lin’s Duo features as soloists Shanghai-born international cellist Jian Wang and Lei Jia on sheng, the traditional Chinese bamboo woodwind instrument. It was originally composed for Yo-Yo Ma and Wu Tong and premiered in 2011.

Ye Xiaogang's Guangdong Music Suite was inspired by the musical culture of the Pearl River delta, home to the orchestra, and written in 2005.

The programme is completed by Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, in the 1919 version.

Jing Huan

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Review of Ellen Kent's Aida

Following her theatrical mantra of ‘Wherever possible, work with children and animals’, opera producer Ellen Kent brings us Verdi’s Aida with dancing girls, gambolling juveniles and Houdini the horse.

Her production sells itself on spectacle, and sure enough there are ‘cascades of glittering gold’ fluttering down from the flies, and a performance from fire spinner Rachael Lloyd, to dignify the Triumphal March, as well as students from the Northern Ballet School and children from Stagecoach Theatre Arts.

Nicolae Dohotaru conducted the score in his familiar, brisk style, and the chorus of the touring company of east Europeans, as ever, worked extremely hard.

The best things in the performance were the soprano and tenor, Olga Perrier and Giorgio Meladze. She, as we saw in La Bohème, is a great trouper and brought the title role to a point where (for once) it seemed the opera really was all about her and no one else. Her voice quality was sustained well, considering the load she is shouldering in this tour, with only minimal signs of strain towards the end. She animated the opening scene, brought vivid passion to ‘Numi, pietà’, and her singing in the two duet passages of Act Three lifted the atmosphere considerably.

Giorgio Meladze, as Radames, was also a considerable cut above the rest. He possessed well focused intonation, shown from the start in ‘Celeste Aida’ – something that seems to defeat some of the biggest names on some occasions, as they don’t warm up adequately before they go on. Not so he, and the added value of the French soprano and Spanish tenor to the otherwise Ukrainian/Moldovan list of principals was considerable.

Zarui Vardanean, as Amneris, has sung the role for Ellen Kent many times and, though solid and powerful in tone, was not able to summon the venom-spitting fire it can ideally take on; Oleksandr Forkushak, as the King of Egypt, displayed again his rich bass timbre.

Reverting to the matter of animals, I noticed one scene had two parrots in cages to add to the menagerie. And yet their movement abilities seemed strictly limited. Was that some kind of visual joke?

Friday, 5 May 2017

Review of the Hallé under Ryan Wigglesworth

The Hallé blended tradition with innovation in Thursday’s concert, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth and in the event also dedicated to the memory of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, a former principal conductor who himself championed both.

The account of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, from 1695, was not ‘authentic’ performance. How could it be, with modern brass instruments (a touch of authentic drumming, though, for the Funeral March), the Hallé Choir in strength to sing the Sentences, and a large concert hall to fill with the resulting sound?

Wigglesworth grasped the bull by the horns and went for big effects and drama in presentation. Ceremonial music usually sounds good in the reverberant Bridgewater Hall, and this was theatrically presented, with brass and drums on high above the platform, level with the choir and at their side, the obsequies echoing around the building.

The singing had smooth, clear lines, secure intonation in the chromatic harmonies of ‘In the midst of life we are in death’, and a thrilling climax that probably exceeded anything Purcell conceived or ever heard. ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts’ also brought a dynamic use of the power of the full chorus.

Ryan Wigglesworth conducted the orchestra in a recent piece of his own – Locke’s Theatre, written for the Aldeburgh Festival of 2013. It’s made up of fairly ‘straight’ orchestrations of Matthew Locke’s 1674 music for The Tempest, but each of the three sections is followed by Wigglesworth’s own excursus on or deconstruction of the original. It requires a large orchestra, including triple woodwind (except for the higher double reeds), three trumpets, six percussionists and two harps.

In a way, the same dramatized, expansionary, grandiosing approach we had heard with Purcell’s bare notes was reflected in the writing here, especially in the opening ‘First Music’. The double of the ‘Rustic Music’ added mysteriously static passages with dance rhythm ideas borrowed from the original, and the Locke music itself of the ‘Curtain Music’ (which depicts a storm) was offered as a massive crescendo from viol-like string quartet, through the massed string orchestra, to a final eruption – and then a sequence of alternating calm and fury which left one wondering which really had the final word.

Like Berg’s violin concerto, this piece leaves the listener with just enough anchors in the known universe to take on board the mind-blowing expansion of it that’s being explored.

Finally Ryan Wigglesworth conducted Bruckner’s Symphony no. 9 – the one he left unfinished and which is usually heard as just the three completed movements.

Bruckner is a Hallé staple now (thanks in no small measure to Skrowaczewski’s work), and this account had many splendours in the long run, despite an opening in which wind and brass tones were hardly on the subtle side.

But the strings (led by Daniel Bell) brought their best ‘dolce’ tone to the first movement exposition, and the brass grew in precision and impressiveness as the work went on. Wigglesworth hammered home the disturbingly ferocious jollity of the scherzo along with its fleeting moments of soul’s contentment; and the finale – Adagio or else ‘very slow’ – built to a powerful conclusion, despite one slight miscalculation (as I heard it) of the tempo. The last pages were beautifully warm.

Review of Ellen Kent's La Boheme

At the Palace for the first time in many a year, Ellen Kent has brought her tried and tested touch with classic operas back again, this time with mainly Ukrainian singers, new to us, and a mainly Moldovan orchestra.

Her La Bohème tells the story with bold strokes – never mind that it’s supposed to be happening in the 1830s and the Eiffel Tower wasn’t built till 1889: this set has the tower in every backdrop, because it’s Paris, for goodness sake!

The set for the opening and final scenes has an over-the-rooftops view which is evocative of a garret for starving students, even if there’s little sign of a ceiling over their heads, and the lighting is that of summer sunlight even though the first scene is on Christmas Eve and the last in springtime (something the words and music make much of and which should really be shown in any staging).

But the mid-winter scene at the city gates (Act 3) looks cold all right, and there’s a positive blizzard of stage snow during it to underline the point.

La Bohème is such a brilliant piece of musical writing that its spell works in almost any version. No one has ever quite caught the magic of young, dawning love as Puccini did in the two big arias and duet for doomed, beautiful seamstress Mimí and young poet Rodolfo as they meet each other by candle light.

It does need a soprano and tenor who can seem to be young and in love, and Alyona Kistenyova and Vitalii Liskovestkyi had a real go at doing that. Their voices are fully operatically trained (both hit the top Cs at the end of O Soave Fanciulla) and project plenty of tone.

The other male Bohemians (Iurie Gisca as Marcello, Oleksandr Forkushak as Schaunard and Vadym Chernihovskyi as Colline) played their parts well, though Gisca, one of Ellen Kent’s long-serving principals from Moldovan National Opera days, has done this many times before. Eugeniu Ganea was a good comic turn as Benoit and Alcindoro.

But the singer who stole the show was Olga Perrier, as Musetta. The French soprano has appeared with Ellen Kent before in this role, and she had the extrovert personality and complete commitment to character that make the coquette, in some ways, a more interesting personality than the pure and dying heroine, Mimí. And her voice was the best on the stage.

There’s always something new to be mined in a piece so rich as La Bohème, and hopefully Ellen Kent will once again have introduced this wonderful work to many opera novices in a very respectably filled house.