Everyone’s doing it so, a few days late, five selected musical highlights of 2014.
Welsh National Opera: Boulevard Solitude I know, I know…I’m supposed to go for WNO’s Moses und Aron, but I can’t help feeling that a really stupendous musical performance – plus an understandable missionary zeal amongst my colleagues – can’t quite make up for a production that basically avoided the issue. (Review here). Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, though…what a score! What a set of performances! And how they all came together to do exactly what this opera is surely supposed to do. (Review here).
English Touring Opera’s Spring Season ETO’s annual spring seasons at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre are a guilty pleasure for me – and a secret one, apparently: you’d think the music-lovers of Birmingham (population 1.1 million) would have worked out by now that with a 20 minute train-ride they could be seeing opera of this quality. Apparently not, judging from the empty seats for the Britten (though it can’t have helped that the Grand’s box office had mixed up the dates for Paul Bunyan and The Magic Flute – leading befuddled first-timers in the audience trying to work out why Papageno was strumming a guitar). They missed a Magic Flute that charmed and probed in equal measure, and, as I hoped, turned out to be the perfect choice of first live opera for my 12-year old godson (“I didn’t know it would be like panto” he said when we saw it in Sheffield a month later). (Review here) A big-hearted, beautifully-designed Paul Bunyan (Mark Wilde as understatedly magnificent as always) that made the best possible case for – sorry – an absolute car-crash of a piece (Review here). And – thanks to the belated discovery that Cheltenham and back is do-able in a night from Birmingham – a shattering, monumental King Priam. (No review: there purely for pleasure) A tremendous achievement: god, Tippett is undervalued, isn’t he? Quite indecently excited now at the prospect of Birmingham Opera Company’s forthcoming The Ice Break.
Lichfield Cathedral Chorus: The Apostles Local choral societies don’t get national reviews. But I’ve been trying to persuade the Birmingham Post for some time that something a bit special is happening at Lichfield Cathedral (and not just because it’s 3 minutes from my front door). The cathedral’s musical team of Ben Lamb, Cathy Lamb and Martyn Rawles are young, gifted, and ambitious in the best possible way (the budget for the orchestra and soloists for this performance alone apparently cleaned out the Chorus’s coffers for the foreseeable future: respect due). And there’s no getting around the fact that Elgar’s choral writing taxed the Chorus beyond its limits. But the soloists were first-rate, the orchestra (Alex Laing’s DECO) was on fire and the sweep, musicality, and sense of shared adventure about the whole enterprise…well, it glowed in exactly the way it must have done in Elgar’s imagination. Grass-roots music making in the UK, and a living amateur tradition, continues to give us something as stirring – and as profoundly musical – as the most lavishly-funded international orchestra or opera house. (I submitted a review to the local paper but it never appeared in print. Two weeks later a review at three times the length by a writer I don’t know did appear, which I suppose is the main thing, but still…*rolls eyes*.)
Royal Opera House: Die Frau Ohne Schatten I adore Strauss and having missed the last UK production of FrOSch in the 90s, I realised that I couldn’t really risk waiting 20 years for another chance. Having shelled out for the necessary hotels and train tickets, and booked two days off work (in the absence of weekend matinees, the only way to do it from the Midlands) I can only say that boy, it was worth it. I can add nothing to the praise that’s already been heaped on this production: it echoed in my head for days afterwards. Yes, London receives an indefensible 15 times as much arts subsidy per head as the rest of the UK; an attempt to buy a drink in the Floral Hall left images of underfunded education projects, rejected funding grants and decades of shoe-string compromises in the regional arts swirling furiously in my mind. (“We don’t serve Prosecco” sniffed the barman – well, there’s one thing that the Royal Opera House has in common with Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, then.) But with singing like we experienced that night, you can at least hear where the £££s are going. File under “sinful pleasure”. Normal service will be resumed shortly.
Mihkel Poll in Sutton Coldfield It’s received wisdom that small local music clubs are dying out. Martyn Parfect, who runs the Sutton Coldfield Philharmonic Society, merely sees that as a provocation – he thinks big, and never bigger than when he’s twisting the arms of international soloists to play in Sutton’s Victorian linen-cupboard of a Town Hall. Pianistically, Pohl’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto with local semi-pro band the Sinfonia of Birmingham was as fine as you’d expect. What lifted this to another level was watching and hearing the effect that an artist of his calibre had on the orchestral players – and the masterly (there’s no other word for it) way that the conductor, my colleague Michael Seal, coloured the music and shaped the concerto’s architecture in one huge, cumulative symphonic line. It’s always nice to be able to give a glowing review to artists you like and admire; in this case, no critical detachment was required. The performance set its own terms (Review here).