Philharmonia Britannica

The silent film ‘The Battle of the Somme’ was watched by half the British population when it came out in 1916. We will be screening this extraordinary film, on loan from the Imperial War Museum, accompanied by a live performance of the evocative score written by Laura Rossi.
Further info: http://www.laurarossi.com/live-music-to-silent-film/somme/

Time  7.30pm, Saturday 25 February

Place  St John’s Church, Waterloo,  SE1 8TY
http://bit.ly/StJohnsWaterloo

Tickets  £15, £12 (concs), £5 (U19s)

Fulham Opera

Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, sung in English, in Fiona Williams’s new edgy translation, set in 1960s London. With the Fulham Opera Chamber Orchestra, in a new orchestration by Ben Woodward.

Time  8.00pm, Tue 20 / Wed 21 / Fri 23 / Sun 25 March

Place  St John’s Church, North End Road, Fulham, SW6 1PB

Tickets  and further details at www.fulhamopera.com

Whitehall Orchestra

Tchaikovsky’s stirring 4th symphony, paired with two pieces by Walton – his popular coronation march ‘Crown Imperial’, and his violin concerto, played by our leader Nathaniel Vallois.

Time  7.30pm, Thursday 29 March

Place  St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico, SW1V 2AD
http://bit.ly/StGabriels

Tickets  £9 (£6 concessions), with group discounts available

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Time 7.30pm, Saturday 09-Jul-2011

Place St Johns Smith Square, London, London SW1P 3HA, United Kingdom

Great music from stage and screen, with Nelly Miricioiu (http://bit.ly/NellyM) singing a selection of her favourite opera arias, plus Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet suite, Ravel’s La Valse, and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Tchaikovsky Ballet Suite from Swan Lake
Ravel La Valse
Verdi arias from Ernani, Don Carlo, I Due Foscari
Meyerbeer aria from Robert Le Diable
Catalani aria from La Wally
Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

Tickets: £15 or £10 (£12 or £8 concessions)

Booking info: http://www.sjss.org.uk/pages/BookingInfo/bookinginfo.htm

Directions: http://www.sjss.org.uk/pages/Directions/directions.htm

My Proms visits this year – some formal reviews (links), some informal thoughts and observations.

PROM 2: Wagner (Die Meistersinger)

To tell the truth, I was unconvinced of the wisdom of spending 6+ hours in a hot tin can, listening to an unstaged concert performance of my least favourite* Wagner opera. However, it was really very enjoyable indeed. Yes, even Act 1, which has the potential to be deathly dull, but was in this case brightened immeasurably by Pogner, or rather by Brindley Sherratt’s special ability in making the most undramatic, static characters’ narratives implausibly gripping.

My other main reason attending this concert was, of course, to hear Bryn Terfel. I’ve enjoyed him in every opera I’ve heard him sing, but particularly in Wagner, and his Hans Sachs was really something special. In addition to some gorgeous singing, his inhabitation of the character brought out the humorous, mournful and contemplative aspects to perfection. Christopher Purves’s Beckmesser was also genuinely funny — a silly and pompous man but without the nastiness he is sometimes given.

The vocal (and physical) acting of the cast made this so much more than a standard declamatory concert performance, and in fact better to watch than at least one staged performance I’ve seen. Dare I say that I also found it helpful not to have surtitles? Knowing roughly what the characters are wittering on about but being spared the exact words left me free to give my full attention to the music; attention which it very much deserved.

(* Least favourite of the 8 I actually know – also including Ring, Tristan, Parsifal and Dutchman. Haven’t got to grips with Tannhäuser or Lohengrin yet.)

PROM 18: Dean, Mahler, Shostakovich

I found Brett Dean’s ‘Amphitheatre’ pleasant on the ear and atmospheric, but I have to say, I am having some trouble remembering any details about it afterwards. As for the selection from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, while Mahler’s music has been steadily growing on me since university, it’s a slow process, and I’ve made a lot more progress with the symphonies that I have with the songs. Some of them are quite definitely beautiful, but others are somewhat irritating, and those in between I find too short for me to really get a grip on. Nevertheless, Ekaterina Gubanova’s voice sounded gorgeous (right from the back of the circle), and she performed them with such charm and affinity for the music that it would have been impossible not to enjoy.

I have mixed feelings about the second half. Shostakovich 10 is one of my all-time favourites, and I know it very very well. On the positive side, I think this is such a wonderful symphony that it would have to be a poor performance indeed (which this obviously wasn’t) for me not to be moved; on the negative, I couldn’t help picking up various tiny errors that in most pieces I would probably miss. Also, as a result of having performed it a few times, I found myself unintentionally focusing even more attention than usual on the woodwind section, and in particular the piccolo. All clearly excellent players, the micro-section ensemble playing (e.g. the three flutes) was very good indeed, but the and gelling within and between the orchestral sections perhaps less so. In general, the faster, louder passages worked the best — for example, the frenzied second movement was stunning — whereas the sparser passages sometimes could have done with a little more nuance of colour and dynamic, in particular, daring to drop down to a real pianissimo (which only the clarinets really did).

In an aside note, this was a particularly bad concert for selfish, arrogant audience behaviour. There have been various debates in various forums on the old clapping-between-movements chestnut, and although I’m firmly on the side of showing appreciation at the end of a piece of music rather than in the middle of it, I can see why sometimes, after a brilliant cadenza or particularly exciting movement, applause might be spontaneous, and on rare occasions, even welcome. But how can anyone listen to the magical time-stopping piccolo solo that ends the first movement and hangs in the air, and then want to break up the brief pregnant silence before the second movement launches, by slapping their hands together? And if only the clapping was all… While I’m very much in favour of letting children experience orchestral music from an early age, for the sake of other audience members who have parted with their hard-earned cash to hear some music, it might be worth waiting until said child is capable of sitting quietly for more than five minutes at a time. And if Shostakovich had wished the quiet, contemplative moments of his symphony to include the chattering of some teenage girls, he probably would have written it into the score. Yes, I’m touchy about this. But I do think it’s both disrespectful to the musicians pouring their hearts out on stage, and selfish to assume that your conversation is important enough to be worth disturbing the listening experience of the people around you. Anyway, in this case the talkers were sitting right in front of me, so it was not difficult to lean over and politely request they keep their voices down during the music. And then tell them again, less politely. And then administer a quick kick to the seat when they started up yet again.

Rant over 🙂

PROM 21: Berlioz, Wagner

A bit of a mixture, this one. At some points it sounded sublime, at others, frankly, a bit ropey. Simon Rattle’s interpretation of the score and shaping of the music was superb, and there were a lot of lovely sounds coming from the OAE, particularly the warm, rounded    tone of the strings. However, Wagner’s woodwind writing can be tricky in terms of intonation, and unfortunately there were moments where this showed; in the brass, there was great enthusiasm, which sometimes incurred the sacrifice of accuracy. (These issues, interestingly, did not show up in the Berlioz at all.)

Of the singers, Franz-Josef Selig was a wonderful rich, dark King Mark, and the other highlight was Sarah Connolly’s Brangäne, with a particularly wonderful moment being her voice echoing down from the castle tower (i.e. Gallery). Violeta Urmana’s Isolde sometimes seemed underpowered — although I’m quite prepared to believe this was due to the vagaries of the Albert Hall acoustic — and unfortunately, Ben Heppner appeared to be in some vocal distress at the upper end of the vocal range; however, they both pulled out all the stops for So sturben wir, the heart of the act, to great emotional effect.

PROM 35: Ligeti, Tchaikovsky, Langgaard, Sibelius

“Countless thorns: silence. My silence: the beating of my heart … Night.” So began tonight’s concert, with Ligeti’s setting of Sándor Weöres’s poem Ejszaka (Night). Introspective in feel, and with every word of the text described in the harmony and texture, it set the scene for what at times was quite an other-wordly evening of music. While this short piece and its companion, Reggel (Morning) show the young Ligeti exploring tone clusters and harmonic layering, they provided opportunity for the double choir to display a variety of tone colours, dynamic changes and rhythmic vocal effects.

As Night segued smoothly into Morning, so did Ligeti into Tchaikovsky. With only the tiniest of pauses, Thomas Dausgaard directed his attention from choir to orchestra, Henning Kraggerud appeared as if from nowhere, and before anyone had had time to even think of coughing, shuffling or clapping their hands, the concerto had started. This was more musically effective than one might have expected, perhaps due to the Ligeti ending on the notes D and A, and the violin concerto being in D major… [read more here]

PROM 41: Scriabin, Stravinsky

I nearly didn’t go to this concert. And that would have been a mistake, because it was absolutely wonderful. However, at some point during the afternoon it occurred to me: LSO – Gergiev – Firebird – er, what were you thinking? So after my meeting I jumped on the tube, legged it down to South Ken, and totally prommed it like it was the 1980s. By that I mean, up in the Gallery (with a cooling breeze and loads of personal space), lying down on the floor with my eyes shut (because I have no need to look at another orchestra – I see orchestras all the time and they usually look much the same), alone (because when I was a teen I knew even less people who shared my taste for 20th century orchestral music than I do now), and even with some chocolate and a detective novel for the interval. Great stuff.

And brilliant music, yes. I didn’t know a note of the Scriabin, so think perhaps I won’t even try to go into any descriptive detail – I just allowed myself to be swept away by it. Firebird, though, I know well – it was probably the first piece that really turned me on to Stravinsky, but also it’s one of the orchestral flute parts* I’ve spent the most hours practising, as it is bloody difficult. (Well, it was difficult for me – daresay it’s a piece of cake for Gareth Davies!) Anyway, this was a well-nigh perfect performance of it: that so-important precision of rhythm and ensemble, coupled with equally-important fire, energy and fluidity. Also, while it can be impressive when sections blend smoothly (e.g. at last week’s DNSO concert), for this kind of music, each of the instruments must have its own character that stands out from the rest, and this was very much the case here – and throughout the orchestra from top to bottom, too. However, deserving special mention… some absolutely stunning oboe playing from  Emanuel Abbühl** (and I’ve heard a lot of very good oboing in my time) and gorgeous molten lava firebird-ing from Gareth Davies, particularly in their Pas de Deux (ok, technically Ivan and the Firebird’s P de D). Sparks flying from Sharon Williams on pic,  contrabassoons like a bad tempered lion waking up after a heavy night at the oasis***, and if I go on I’ll end up listing the whole orchestra. LSO are ace, and so is Gergiev, and so is Stravinsky. And all for £5! It’s times like these I love London.

* Suite (1945 version) in a 2008 Whitehall concert

** Couldn’t see a damn thing from where I was, so assuming all woodwind soloists were as indicated in programme. Please let me know if inaccurate.

*** From the LSO’s entertaining and informative blog

PROM 43: Pärt (St John Passion)

Arvo Pärt began work on his setting of the St John Passion in 1980, the point at which, frustrated by the demands of Soviet officialdom, he finally left his native Estonia and moved his family to Austria. His original and distinctive mature compositional style, known as tintinnabuli, however, was by this time well established, and of which this piece is a prime example. Pärt said “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” Passio, of course, is not entirely monophonic, but the musical forces and their deployment are comparatively spare, with nothing extraneous.

Large portions of the text – those narrating the unfolding events – rested on the shoulders of the quartet of voices who together represented the Evangelist. Micaela Haslam (soprano) is familiar from her group Synergy Vocals (regular collaborators with Steve Reich), has an impeccable record in performing and directing the work of contemporary composers, and her performance of Pärt was as perfectly-judged an interpretation as one would expect from an expert in the field… [read more here]

PROM 46: Mosolov, Pärt, Ravel, Scriabin

This concert was a little different from the others in that I didn’t know any of the pieces well, and the composers are not favourites of mine, but all in the I-should-probably-listen-to-more-of-their-stuff-as-I-might-quite-like-it category.

If you want to get an audience’s attention right from the start, Mosolov’s The Foundry is a good way to go about it. Great fun. My companion’s comment was “This piece should be played at every concert – it’s brilliant.” Me, I’m wondering about hire costs, and if I can get it onto the programme for one of the orchestras I play with?

Pärt is definitely a composer I’ve been meaning for a long time to investigate further, but although I very much enjoyed his St John Passion on Tuesday night, his 4th Symphony left me a little cold, although it had some lovely passages, and it seemed most of the audience were in raptures. Will give it another go on iPlayer, but I expect I’ll like it better when it’s complete, and he’s added all the brass and woodwind parts. Or perhaps he wrote them, but the printer ran out of ink halfway, and they thought because it was the UK premiere, nobody would know any better.*

I expect Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is one of the pieces familiar to everyone but me. Frankly, half the notes in the fast passages could have been wrong and I wouldn’t have known (although I’m assuming they weren’t), but it was, again, a lot of fun, and performed with great energy and a fair dollop of showmanship by Bavouzet. From our East Choir seats we had an excellent view of his left hand flying up and down, which was very entertaining, although perhaps made me listen to the music in quite a different way than I would have with no view. Thinking about it, I probably even listen differently to musicians if I’m watching them from the front or back: sitting behind an orchestra makes me feel like I’m a part of it, and with a conductor face-on I watch him or her too closely, catching myself filling my lungs on upbeats, etc., so it’s not unreasonable to suppose different parts of the brain might be activated by the different views. I also noticed for the first time how intricate Salonen’s hand and finger movements are when conducting – interesting, but I don’t necessarily want to be observing and analysing in this way at concerts.

My only prior relationship with Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy was that I once had to sight-read the 1st flute part, and was concentrating too hard on the rather black pages to be thinking about whether I actually liked the work or not. Fortunately, it turns out I do like it. And despite my reservations about watching music being played rather than devoting myself entirely to the auditory experience,  it did also benefit from the visual spectacle of all the speed-blurred fingers and bows, a conductor practically dancing on the podium, and the will-they-won’t-they precarious wobbling of the giant tubular bells whenever the percussion chap gave them a wallop with the hammers (which was frequently and energetically). In fact, the Philharmonia percussion section were particularly impressive throughout the concert, with other stand-outs being the trumpet(s), horns, and cor anglais.

* I feel the need to point out that this is not meant seriously. In the interval, we were making tongue-in-cheek comments about members of the percussion section having an easy job, just hitting a big drum with a stick now and then while the string players had lots of different notes, and got a telling off from a nearby audience member who happened to be a percussionist, righteously indignant about any perceived dissing of his section.

The Whitehall Orchestra

Tchaikovsky : Symphony No. 6

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 (with Idil Biret)

7.30 pm, Saturday 2 May 2009

St John’s Smith Square, London SW1P 3HA

Image borrowed from www.roh.org

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org

As last time, I left it a bit long to write this (having rather too much work-related writing to be done in December) but will attempt to remember what I can. As with most of the previous operas reviewed here (excepting Tosca and the Wagners) I didn’t know this one at all until recently. However, I decided this time to do some ‘homework’. I have one friend who always listens to recordings and reads up on operas before seeing them for the first time, and another who scorns such behaviour – myself, I can appreciate the effects both of knowing a work really well and the impact of hearing great music for the first time. So, this time I decided to familiarise myself with a recording (1991, Ozawa, Freni/ Atlantov/ Hvorostovsky/ Forrester etc.) which was good, but had the disadvantage that I then couldn’t help making frequent comparisons during the live performance to the one I’d been listening to on CD.

I’d heard many bad things about the set/staging of this production, but it didn’t seem particularly offensive to me – although as I was in the Upper Slips I could only see about 2/3 of the stage plus a lot of tops of singers’ heads and Paulina’s ample cleavage. The set just seemed a bit nondescript, apart from the huge pile of snow which turned up on the stage after the interval. This snow proved a divisive point for critics, but I quite liked it, even if it did have no business being in the Countess’s bedroom. I also though it was very cool when it split in two and blue light shone out of it to represent the river (having a general inclination for minimalist stagings involving pretty lights); however, as Liza wandered casually into the gap rather than, say, leaping, several people near me didn’t realise she was supposed to be dead (especially as she wandered on stage again later on, not looking much deader than before). Costumes didn’t make much impression on me at all, except possibly Yeletsky’s offensive salmon-pink outfit with mustard-yellow socks (why?) Tomsky putting on a dress during the Mozart-pastiche, and Gherman running round in his grubby long underwear and boots in Act 2.

The orchestra sounded generally very good throughout, although I wasn’t convinced by the tempi chosen for some of the music. As usual, I had a particular ear open for the woodwind. The flute section, although sounding lovely in the few exposed passages, didn’t really have an awful lot to do this time; the same goes for the clarinets, although I would like to give a particular mention to the bass clarinet (Marina Finnamore, I think), which sounded lovely in its brief solo moments. So, the overture was great, but having set up so well, the opera then takes a nose-dive by having a scene full of irritating shreiky brats. Horrid noise. But I suppose they weren’t there for that long, and soon after that I had a very happy surprise in the discovery of a tenor that I actually like. Vladimir Galouzine was absolutely excellent as Gherman, and I shall certainly be looking out for him in the future. Attempting to describe the voice I can come up with vague words like ‘smoky’, ‘metallic’, etc. but in the end all I can really say is that it did it for me. It was unfortunate that he was made to look so unappealing – like a shouty drunk tramp staggering around – but this is a comparatively minor detail, and he certainly threw himself into the part, presumably in the manner directed. The other voice I particularly liked was Larissa Diadkova as the Countess. Her singing was lovely, in a soft, understated way (although her physical portrayal of an old woman was not, being rather hammy.) I thought Mlada Khudoley sang Liza very well but didn’t do much in the way of acting.

On the recording I’d been listening to previously, I really disliked the tenor (Atlantov) and hence many of the bits where he featured heavily. However, I adored Hvorostovsky’s Yeletsky, and listened to ‘Ya vas lyublyu’ a quite excessive number of times. Sadly, William Dazely came nowhere near (not unpleasant, just weak), so my favourite aria of the opera was rather a disappointment, as well as being taken far too fast. I also particularly like the supporting role of Paulina (especially the ‘Romance’, her first solo), but Enkelejda Shkosa’s voice, while I don’t have any criticism of it, was personally not at all to my taste.

The final scene at the card table didn’t come off particularly well, and I was confused by the dancing men who lay on their backs and kicked their legs in the air for a while every now and then. I wondered if it might be some kind of piss-take of the stereotypical Cossack dance? Also, I’m informed that on the side of the stage I couldn’t see, they were later playing ‘spin the bottle’ and two of the chaps had a big snog, but I think this may be my friends winding me up, knowing my liking for finding gay subtexts.

A last thought: The character of Gherman is often referred to as ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’, but I disagree with this. He’s also sometimes described as manic-depressive (which is more accurate), but his behaviour could also be consistent with autism. Agree? Disagree?