Review: CBSO & Nic McGegan

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The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at  Symphony Hall on Wednesday 1 June.


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Nic!

What do Berlioz, Purcell, Nicolai, Vaughan Williams and Cole Porter all have in common? On the strength of this Shakespeare 400 concert by the CBSO under Nicholas McGegan, they all wrote Shakespearean music that doesn’t seem to contain much actual Shakespeare. And that’s about it. But they did add up to a very long concert – finishing just shy of 10pm, even after Sullivan’s delightful Merchant of Venice suite had been cut to a paltry three movements.

Still, as Birmingham audiences well know, Nicholas McGegan’s concerts are never routine: he’s so enthusiastic that those two and a half hours positively danced by. McGegan brings such warmth that you have to ask why we don’t hear Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor overture or Sullivan’s suite more often. And of course, both Cole Porter and Purcell were basically in showbiz: singers Sandra Piques Eddy and Duncan Rock waltzed stylishly through a selection from Kiss Me, Kate (the orchestra could have done with keeping down) before McGegan unleashed four soloists and the full CBSO Chorus on a performance of Act IV of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen that will have silenced all but the sourest of early music fundamentalists with its style and splendour.

Earlier, soprano Fflur Wyn had sparkled and charmed her way through Arne’s Shakespeare settings – a rare bit of actual Bard – and held the entire hall rapt as she and Eddy floated the duet from Berlioz’ Béatrice et Bénédict over McGegan’s shimmering accompaniment. But the real discovery was Vaughan Williams’s In Windsor Forest: a playful choral suite, sung by the CBSO Chorus with a radiance and subtlety that made you long to hear them again in the Sea Symphony. It’d be perfect for the Last Night of the Proms.

Review: Sinfonia of Birmingham

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The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at the Adrian Boult Hall on Monday 23 May.


Sutton Coldfield

Yes, it says “Royal”. What?

If it’s true that you can always tell when non-professional orchestras haven’t rehearsed the concerto properly, boy, can you hear it when they have. When Savitri Grier played the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Sinfonia of Birmingham under Michael Seal, it was her playing, of course, that took the spotlight – a deep, eloquent tone, making every line sing, and all delivered with remarkable poise and flair. But you also noticed how Seal and his orchestra were behind her, and inside the music, every bar of the way.

That began with the very opening: in those brief seconds of icy rustlings Seal created both a sense of space, and an atmosphere (never the easiest thing to achieve in Sutton Coldfield Town Hall). Orchestral tuttis surged up like lava, woodwinds danced and swirled, and the whole thing felt like one huge, unified, sweep of music: the symphony Sibelius never wrote.

Earlier, Seal and the Sinfonia had given us a foretaste of what to expect in Berlioz’s King Lear overture. The brass snarled and snapped, cellos and basses thundered out their recitatives with a suitably black voice, and – in the introduction – the whole band achieved a magical transparency as Berlioz layers hushed violins over throbbing woodwinds and a sombre brass chorale.

And they followed up with a Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony that exceeded even the already high voltage of the Sibelius. If the strings were starting to buckle slightly under the strain, the woodwinds (and the bassoons in particular) were gloriously on song. It was heartening to see what looked like a larger than usual audience for this Sutton Philharmonic Society concert, too. With standards as consistently high as this, no self-respecting music lover in North Birmingham should still be staying away from these Monday evening concerts.

 

Review: BCMG at the Adrian Boult Hall

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The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at the Adrian Boult Hall on Friday 20 May.


ABH

The ABH: the end of a very short book that no-one enjoyed reading.

I come to bury the Adrian Boult Hall, not to praise it. At the not-exactly-ripe age of 30, it’s scheduled to be the next victim of the orgy of demolition currently wrecking the city centre for another generation. And so BCMG returned to the venue of its very first concerts for the very last time, teaming up with the chamber choir Via Nova for a rather subdued wake – though one that wasn’t without a few quiet smiles.

Those came courtesy of Howard Skempton – a sympathetic presence in tonight’s audience, as he is at so many BCMG concerts. Ulrich Heinen performed Skempton’s Six Figures for unaccompanied cello from memory, and Malcolm Wilson brought a wonderfully deadpan sense of timing to three piano miniatures from Skempton’s Nocturnes and Reflections.

They didn’t need anything more: Skempton’s music thrives on understatement, and the unexpected ending of his a capella suite The Flight of Song, performed by Via Nova, drew a ripple of appreciative amusement from the small audience. Charlotte Bray’s dark, volatile Perseus (performed by Wilson and Heinen) and Betsy Jolas’s chant-like Music to Go (Heinen joined by viola player Chris Yates) completed a distinctly wry first half.

It all came into focus after the interval, when Daniel Galbreath conducted Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. Part ritual, part requiem, part haunting sonic sculpture, it was an inspired choice to mark the passing of a space devoted to music, and Via Nova sang with hushed concentration while three BCMG players calmly sketched the boundaries of a vast, resonant universe around them. It was beautifully done, and this was one of those all-too-rare occasions when the ABH’s atmosphere and acoustic actually felt exactly right. Too bad.

April scribblings

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Twenty minutes ago in Lichfield we had a hailstorm. Now it looks like this:017

I’ve given up trying to wrap my head around the seasons because this month it’s been pretty much non-stop scribble scribble scribble, as George III supposedly said to Dr Johnson. I’ve had reviews in The Spectator for Birmingham Conservatoire’s Anglo-French triple-bill and the RAM’s May Night, reviewed a new opera and a Shakespeare celebration for The Birmingham Post and taken the road to Buxton to cover English Touring Opera’s spring season (well, 2/3 of it) for The Arts Desk. Not that I need much excuse to visit Buxton Opera House: this has surely got to be Britain’s best drive to work. Bit of RVW on the stereo: magic.

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And last night I heard the UK premiere of a masterpiece – also for The Arts Desk.

On top of that, I’ve been working with The Philharmonia, Performances Birmingham, the CBSO and Warwick Arts Centre on their 16-17 season brochures. It’s a privilege to see what’s coming up next season but a couple of things are so exciting that it’s been quite hard to bite my tongue. And programme notes for two great festivals: four heavyweight programmes for Salzburg – any chance to write about Mozart is always a pleasure – and a whole raft of really wonderful English music, including some real favourites of mine, for the Three Choirs (it’s in Gloucester this year, btw).

Those came courtesy of two great colleagues, Gavin Plumley (he’s got a Wigmore Hall debut coming up and knowing the care and expertise he brings to everything he does, it should be superb) and Clare Stevens, who’s currently blogging the story of her grandmother’s experiences in the Easter Rising of 1916: a really remarkable piece of family history. I’ve also written about a couple of fascinating programmes for the Wigmore Hall and the Barbican and an article on Verdi’s Falstaff for the CBSO’s in-house magazine Music Stand. And did you know that Arthur Bliss wrote a Fanfare for the National Fund for Crippling Diseases? Don’t ask…

And that’s not to mention my most exciting project so far for Gramophone: a reassessment of Carlos Kleiber’s classic 1976 recording of Die Fledermaus, co-written (to my astonishment and awe) with one of the greatest living experts on operetta, Andrew Lamb. A huge privilege and actually enormous fun; I think it’s being published in the July edition, though meanwhile Gramophone has been keeping me busy with everything from Johann Strauss and Balfe to Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. Full list here. They know me too well already…

Anyway, tonight it’s Mark Simpson’s new opera Pleasure at Opera North (for The Spectator); the next few weeks of opera-going will take me to Guildford, Cardiff, Wolverhampton and Glasgow, so if I’m quiet again for a bit, my apologies.

Review: Kidderminster Choral Society

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The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Kidderminster Town Hall on Saturday 19  March.


Handel’s The King Shall Rejoice, Haydn’s Nelson Mass and Mozart’s anything-but-solemn Solemn Vespers – the Kidderminster Choral Society clearly likes to keep itself busy. This was a concert of pretty much wall-to-wall choral singing, and none the worse for it: three top-flight masterpieces delivered with energy and zing under the Society’s artistic director Geoffrey Weaver.

And that was despite the stage arrangements at Kidderminster’s Victorian Town Hall – which split the choir in two and stacked them steeply on either side of the organ. The KCS is clearly well-used to this: they produced a big, bright mass of sound, with a brilliant soprano section and a more than usually lively team of altos. In the Haydn, they sounded like they were enjoying every note. Weaver kept it bowling along and the choir responded with lively, natural phasing and crisp, clearly enunciated interjections in the Gloria.

Perhaps he might have paced the Benedictus to make more a climax out of the arrival of Haydn’s warlike trumpets – but there was no doubt that the spirit of the thing was there in spades. It helped that they had such a winningly youthful line-up of soloists: contralto Elisabeth Paul, tenor Christopher Fitzgerald-Lombard and bass Andrew Randall. But the real heroine of the evening was the soprano Gemma King, standing in at one day’s notice, and singing with a pure, vibrato-light tone and such smiling freshness that you’d never have known it.

A couple of caveats: there’d be room in the nicely-produced programme book for the text and translations – these should be provided as a matter of course. And as Richard Strauss once said: don’t look at the trombones, it only encourages them. Throughout the first half, one of the Elgar Sinfonia’s trombonists (unnamed in the programme) honked it out so noisily that any chance of distinguishing the chorus’s words was obliterated, at least from where I was sitting. 

Review: Klee Quartet plays Kurtag and Gurney

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St Nicholas Codsall

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Codsall Community Arts Festival on Tuesday 15  March.


You’ve got to hand it to the Codsall Community Arts Festival. Many festivals simply pick their concert programmes from a set menu provided by the ensemble. But at Codsall, having made the Great War a theme, they contacted Gloucester Library, sought out the manuscript of Gurney’s incomplete String Quartett [sic] of 1918-19, and persuaded the Klee Quartet to play it alongside Purcell’s Fantasia No.12 and – seriously – György Kurtág’s Six Moments Musicaux.

That would be a risky programme even at Birmingham Town Hall. I’m pleased to report that St Nicholas’s Church was well filled and that the audience listened with every sign of intense concentration, barring the lady next to me who unwrapped and munched a Mars Bar in the second movement of the Gurney. Did it work? The first half certainly did.

The Tokyo-based Klee Quartet – currently studying at Birmingham Conservatoire – plays with subtlety, style and intense commitment. They began the Fantasia without vibrato, gradually starting to colour Purcell’s plaintive D minor phrases as the music unfolded. Then they launched straight into the Kurtág – with passion, precision and a range of colours that made every pizzicato slide or barely-audible sul ponticello shiver tell its own story. Above it all, leader Naoko Senda’s rich, ardent tone left no doubt that we were hearing emotion as well as fierce intelligence.

If only they’d managed to get quite so completely inside the Gurney: though much as it hurts to say it, maybe there isn’t really very much to get inside. It’s tender and lyrical: it’s also rambling and diffuse. The Klees were clearly game, but even they couldn’t quite convince you that there were worthwhile ideas to be found beyond the ravishing first theme of the Adagio. Still, Gurney needs to be heard, and thanks to the Codsall Festival he was. That’s something.

Larks ascending

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So, the morning after we saw Birmingham Conservatoire’s production of Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea, we drove to Bath. It was a beautiful clear day and the roads were empty, so at Cirencester we decided to take a slight diversion – and make a long-intended pilgrimage to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s birthplace, the Cotswold village of Down Ampney.

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I’d always lazily pictured it in some little Gloucestershire valley or on a hillside, like Painswick or the Slaughters. In fact, it lies some miles behind the Cotswold escarpment in wide open countryside, rolling so gently that it’s practically flat.

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Other than that, it’s much as you’d expect – quiet, certainly not coach party-pretty, but extremely pleasant: birdsong was in the air on this March afternoon, and there’s clearly as much going on as you’d imagine in any medium-sized English village.

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There’s no museum or monument to RVW. And unless you’ve done your homework, there’s no outward sign to tell you that the village’s Old Vicarage was the birthplace of Britain’s greatest symphonist post-Elgar. We didn’t hang around outside; it’s clearly still a family home and anyone who’s ever lived in an Oxford college knows what it’s like to look out of your living room window and see a tourist camera pointed straight back. It’s shielded from the road by thick yew hedges. We didn’t want to turn into stalkers, so we walked on.

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Instead Down Ampney wears its connection to RVW modestly, but with quiet pride – exactly how you suspect he’d have wanted it. The focus for pilgrims is the village church of All Saints, located next to the manor house down a quiet lane about 10 minutes’ walk from the village centre.

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It’s not all about RVW. There was an RAF base in the nearby fields during World War 2 and the churchyard has numerous war graves. There’s also a Victorian stained glass tribute to Vaughan Williams’ father, the Rev Arthur Vaughan Williams, who was vicar of Down Ampney at the time of Ralph’s birth. The church is unlocked during daylight, though a sign on the door warns you to shut it firmly after you “as birds find the interior fascinating”.

And there’s a small but very comprehensive exhibition about the composer at the back of the church, provided by the RVW society.

But the best finds were the little things that show that so many years later, RVW is still a presence in the life of this church and community – we spotted this embroidered hassock. And the music of the hymn Come Down O Love Divine was pinned to the organ – to the tune, of course, that Vaughan Williams wrote in 1904, and called (what else?) “Down Ampney”.

 

Review: WNO’s The Marriage of Figaro

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WNO Figaro Countess

Elizabeth Watts & Mark Stone (Countess & Count Almaviva) – picture by Richard Hubert Smith

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Birmingham Hippodrome on Wednesday 23 March, a sort of addendum to my Spectator review of the opening night in Cardiff a fortnight earlier. 


At the very end of The Marriage of Figaro, as the Almaviva household’s crazy day races towards its conclusion, the betrayed Countess declines her revenge and instead forgives her jealous, philandering husband. Done well, it’s one of the most poignant moments in all Mozart – in other words, in all of theatre.

In this new production from Welsh National Opera, it wasn’t just the great, compassionate glow that flooded from Lothar Koenigs’ orchestra that made the eyes well up. It wasn’t even Elizabeth Watts’s radiant singing as the Countess. It was the way Watts took the Count (Mark Stone) by the hand and for the first time in the whole evening, looked him in the eye. One little detail, a single moment of human contact – and yet one that summed up everything that made director Tobias Richter’s achievement so utterly glorious.

It fizzed. It sparkled. And with a near-ideal cast, everyone played joyously off each other. In David Stout’s witty, handsomely-sung Figaro and Anna Devin’s sunny, spirited Susanna, Richter had a central couple who were both entirely believable and enormous fun to be around. With her gawky movements and sweet but plangent tone, Naomi O’Connell’s Cherubino was the girl-crazy teenage boy to perfection.

As Basilio, Alan Oke rolled his r’s with deliciously pedantic relish, while Richard Wiegold’s Bartolo and Susan Bickley’s Marcellina managed the transition from pantomime baddies to doting parents with genuine charm. And under Richter’s direction, even the Count evoked sympathy, Stone’s features crumpling with the frustration and puzzlement of a man who’s essentially weak rather than bad.

Sue Blane’s colourful mock-Georgian costumes gave the whole thing the tiniest spice of artificiality – just enough to make it ping off the stage. And to hear the clarity and comic timing these singers brought to their lines (in Jeremy Sams’ translation), with an audience laughing in real time, was a vindication of WNO artistic director David Pountney’s decision to have it sung in English. Ralph Koltai’s semi-abstract sets won’t have been to all tastes, but they focused attention on what really mattered: the warmth of the human comedy unfolding beneath them, and some of the freshest singing and acting you could possibly hope for. In short, if you get a chance to see this production, take it. It’s basically perfect.

Review: Handel’s Orlando

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WNO Figaro

Nicholas Lester in WNO’s The Barber of Seville. Robbie Rotten, I’m telling you.

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (you should really go out and buy the paper!) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Birmingham Town Hall on Friday 26 February.

Other recent reviews include my takes on WNO’s Figaro Forever trilogy in The Birmingham Post and The Spectator.


Dr Johnson defined opera as “an exotic and irrational entertainment” – and for Exhibit A, he could have taken Handel’s Orlando. No opera can be judged fairly from a concert performance. But with the non-musical drama stripped out, Orlando’s high-voiced heroes, grandiose rhetoric and supernatural interventions veer dangerously towards Monty Python. By the umpteenth time that someone in this concert performance by Harry Bicket and The English Concert threatened to kill themself over love, honour or whatever, the Town Hall audience was openly laughing.

Why wouldn’t they? This was a terrifically entertaining evening, and the performances were uniformly superb. Bicket had assembled a dream cast. Countertenor Iestyn Davies blazed as the antihero Orlando, before delivering more reflective passages in tones so mellow that they almost seemed too lovely for a character who’s basically the ex-boyfriend from hell. In the trouser role of African prince (and dreamboat) Medoro the rich-voiced mezzo Sasha Cooke came across with a really masculine air of pride, while Kyle Ketelsen as Zoroastro looked every inch the magus in white tie and tails – and delivered majestic, ringing sound to match.

But at the centre of the drama are the oriental queen Angelica and the shepherdess Dorinda – and Erin Morley and Carolyn Sampson were ideal in every way. Morley’s light, brilliant soprano despatched Handel’s glittering coloratura with jewel-like clarity and poise, while Sampson’s vocal purity and grace made her the picture of pastoral innocence – until the moment in Act Three when, overcome by emotion, her voice deepened and darkened thrillingly and she brought the house down.

Bicket and his band responded exuberantly to Handel’s every detail, the continuo players swathing Angelica’s entrance in great flourishes of sound, and basses digging grittily in as Orlando descended into madness. The only way they could have served Handel better would have been with a fully-staged production.

 

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