Showing posts from June, 2018

Birmingham International Piano Competition by Christopher Morley

Birmingham Town Hall Forty years since its founding, the Robert William and Florence Amy Brant Pianoforte Competition (and what a formidable and tireless administrator their daughter Gladys Lily was) last weekend was relaunched as the Birmingham International Piano Competition. The structure remains the same: preliminary and semifinal recitals specifying particular composers, a final whose only requirement is that the three competitors choose three different composers for their 40-minute programmes; there are some who feel that a concerto with orchestra would provide more of a sense of occasion. One wonders if the in-the-round seating, while fascinating for the audience, might mean the proximity is intimidating for the players, particularly when so many of the listeners here appeared to be asleep at one time or another, so up close and personal. Whatever the case, this year's finalists presented well-balanced, imaginative programmes, performing with poise and quiet confide

Birmingham Choral Union, St Pauls, Hockley - by Christopher Morley

Birmingham Choral Union is a choir which exudes enthusiasm. Their demeanour is friendly, they obviously love their shared music-making, they perform a variety of content in a variety of venues, and they shrewdly mine not just the old favourites of the repertoire, but also some little-known nuggets. Saturday's offerings in this welcoming and appropriate Jewellery Quarter venue were typical of the programming conductor Colin Baines conjures up. Here we heard little-known but eminently functional works by Mendelssohn (his Lutheran Mass) and Dvorak (his Mass in D), and the Birmingham connections of this duo were resonant in this church built long before they were born. The Mendelssohn is actually a compilation of bits and pieces from various periods in his short but intensely productive career; here we heard midway a well-registrated, acutely-phrased performance of his Prelude and Fugue in C minor for organ from the dependable and musicianly Darren Hogg. The Dvorak is a heartwarmi

CBSO, Mirga and The Rite of Spring by Christopher Morley

I've never felt it necessary to mention that Andris Nelsons is a man, and accordingly that Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla is a woman; they are just both brilliant conductors. But this concert was rather special, in that, seven months into her pregnancy, Mirga at last relaxed into the same high-backed stool that Andris used to use, to conduct the amazingly energetic programme which was her last programme with the CBSO this season, broadcast live on BBC Radio3 (my spies tell me that she discarded the stool for the next day's matinee). This was an astonishingly well-conceived programme which began with Stravinsky paying homage to his predecessors, including surprising evocations of Wagner whilst presaging his own Firebird, in the only recently-rediscovered Funeral Song, dedicated to the memory of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. And we concluded with a buoyantly lyrical Rite of Spring, Stravinsky casting off the shackles of traditional harmony and rhythm, deploying instead an orchestra of

Pelleas et Melisande at Symphony Hall by Christopher Morley

Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande is an opera designed to leave us puzzling, as is Maeterlinck's symbolist play which is its source. But a mere concert-performance, however fine as this was from the CBSO, just leaves its enigmas on the printed page, when there is no interactive characterisation between the protagonists. Staged productions I have seen reveal the fey Melisande, the focus of what little action goes on, to be a manipulative little minx, her husband Golaud to be a tormented bully, his half-brother Pelleas to be a total wet in his aesthetic crush upon Melisande (do they or don't they? almost certainly the latter). Here these roles were effectively sung by Katja Stuber, Roland Wood (his music underlying his bullying, his torment hamstrung by the absence of action), and Jacques Imbrailo. It was left to the peripatetic parts to convey characterisation already latent in the score: Matthew Best as a wonderfully compassionate, sorrowing King Arkel, Felicity Palmer br

Monteverdi Madrigals of War and Love by Christopher Morley

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire at Crescent Studio Many of Monteverdi's madrigals are mini-operas in their own right, dramatic and vividly-characterised, music conveying theatrical action, and it was accordingly a brilliant idea for Royal Birmingham Conservatoire to weave these "Madrigals of War and Love" into a linked sequence as this year's summer operatic offering. War and Love were almost synonymous in the Italian Renaissance, implying a struggle culminating in sexual surrender ("Make love, not war" was a banality foreign to artists of the period). Here an almost cartoon-like unfolding of the action under Matthew Sharp's direction, played against Colin Judge's evocative set design and Charlie Morgan Jones atmospheric lighting, proved both hard-hitting and effective. We almost didn't notice the brilliant dexterity of the versatile little instrumental ensemble conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore, their expert delivery a solid base for the onsta

Vice-Chancellor's Recital, Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire by Christopher Morley

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire's opening year in its magnificent new premises has been peppered with joyous events, the latest of which was this inaugural Vice-Chancellor's Recital, a BBC Radio 3 Piano Showcase (genially compered by Tom Redmond), and celebrating the naming of the RBC's acoustically perfect concert-hall for the generous donating philanthropist Dr Keith Bradshaw. Four top Conservatoire pianists, all studying with Pascal Nemirovski, presented a dazzling programme, beginning with Domonkos Csabay teasing a vast range of attack and colour out of the Steinway's keyboard for Beethoven's Eroica Variations. Roman Kosyakov gave an alert and loving account of Schubert's Four Impromptus Op.90, combining both rigour and lyricism. His rippling right-hand in the E-flat Impromptu was magical. Skryabin's "Black Mass" Sonata was over all too soon, so gripping was Pascal Pascalev's reading, concentrated tension lying beneath the fingers. A

The Dragon of Wantley - Barber Institute by Christopher Morley

This joyous presentation is exactly the epitome of what students should be doing as an end-of-year romp, and one particularly appropriate here in the venue where my beloved Prof, the great Anthony Lewis did so much to revive interest in Handel opera over half-a-century ago. John Frederick Lampe's The Dragon of Wantley lampoons the genre with the knowledge of an intimate insider who was bassoonist in Handel's opera orchestra. He pours out the most exquisitely crafted music, whether affectingly turned arioso or sturdy sequential counterpoint, set to Henry Carey's deliciously banal text ("D'ye laugh, you Minx! I'll make you change your Note, or drive your grinning Grinders down your throat."). And instead of heroic deeds in far-off lands of long ago, here we have a Yorkshire village pillaged by a dragon who needs slaying; one could almost picture it as a Last of the Summer Wine scenario. The students rose gloriously to the tempting challenges of this s

Summer music by candlelight - Ex Cathedra at St Mary's, Shrewsbury - David Hart

Ex Cathedra’s candlelit Christmas concerts have been popular for decades (I reviewed my first in 1981) so it’s no surprise the new Summer Music by Candlelight ones have become such a hit. The first of this season’s performances definitely hit the ground running, attracting a capacity audience to Shrewsbury’s largest church – now sadly redundant but still resplendent with a warm, enabling acoustic. In a hugely enjoyable collection of more than two dozen choral items Jeffrey Skidmore offered something for everyone, from the serious to the tastefully silly, plainsong to popular. From this latter category Gene Kelly’s iconic rendition of Singin’ in the rain and Charles Trenet’s nostalgic La Mer (excellent soloist, though shamefully uncredited, as were the others) were particularly inventive. But it’s at the serious end of the musical spectrum where Ex Cathedra’s choral virtuosity and fabulous tonal range fully reside. We heard this at the start, in the world premiere of Roxanna Panufnik’s

Aldeburgh Festival

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group  BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (June 8 and 9) at the Maltings, Snape. Perhaps being tucked away late at night on the opening evening of this year's Aldeburgh Festival was a tactful slot for the world premiere of Emily Howard's one-act chamber opera To See the Invisible. The premise is a thought-provoking one, someone accused by the state for the heinous crime of "coldness" and condemned to a year of invisibility, during which no-one is allowed to acknowledge him. At first the subject is exhilarated at the freedom this anonymity affords him, but eventually subsides into despair as familiar interactions are denied him.  Unfortunately long before the 80 minutes of this offering were up, many listeners had subsided into despair as well, dismayed at the repetitiously static pacing of music, text (Selma Dmitrijevic out of Robert Silverberg's short story) and visual presentation (neat designs, but ill-judged lighting obscuring

Supersize Polyphony 360 by Christopher Morley

Armonico Consort leaves its Warwick base this summer for an eight-date UK tour taking Supersize Polyphony 360 to a variety of venues in the Midlands, East Anglia, and the south of England. Doing exactly what it says on the tin, Supersize Polyphony offers audiences a surround-sound experience, with the choir performing massive polychoral works from the 16th century. Alessandro Striggio's 60-part Mass "Ecco Si Beato Giorno" is paired with the famous 40-part Spem in Alium motet by Thomas Tallis which it inspired, the English composer persuaded to cock a snook at his Italian colleague. The 26-strong Choir of Gonville and Caius College Chapel, Cambridge, collaborates with Armonico Consort  in the project, and they will all be joined by local chamber and youth choirs from the touring venues to make up the extra voices required for the Striggio. How have the organisation and logistics worked out, I ask Christopher Monks, Armonico's artistic director?  "

LA FINTA SEMPLICE - Classical Opera at the B'ham Town Hall by Christopher Morley

My heart, which once used to rejoice entering the city, now sinks every time it comes into the Dante-esque disaster area which is the centre of Birmingham. How devoted audiences continue to brave their way to Symphony Hall, Town Hall and the Repertory Theatre beats me, but those who made it on Saturday evening had a unique treat. By no means his first opera, La Finta Semplice was composed when Mozart was all of 12, and probably forced on him when his grasping father Leopold mistook a throwaway remark for a commission (what, no contract?),  Its plot is typical opera buffa silliness, by Goldoni out of the commedia dell'arte, but we do get one presage of the mature Mozart when he was to work with the brilliant librettist da Ponte: the resourcefulness of serving-maids (think Susanna, think Despina). Here she is Ninetta, sparkily portrayed by the excellent Chiara Skerath in this spirited Classical Opera and the Mozartists. Indisposition forced me to leave early