Showing posts from August, 2018

Presteigne Festival St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne by David Hart

George Vass, long-standing artistic director and conductor of the Presteigne festival (August 24 and 28), has developed a dependably winning approach to programme planning. Take a main theme (Baltic music this year), add a composer-in-residence (Martin Butler), mark significant birthdays of others (here, David Matthews’ 75th and Michael Berkeley’s 70th), then compare and contrast. These factors were all present in the opening and closing orchestral concerts.  Friday’s started with Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten (waves of anguished mourning, if a bit thinly expressed by the violins): Tuesday’s began with Britten’s own Sinfonietta Op. 1 (youthful posturing and pretension in abundance, which in places Vass made sound quite joyous). Huw Watkins also explored loss and mourning in Remember which, although a song cycle, sounded more like a voice-led tone poem than word settings.  Soprano Ruby Hughes delivered the set with such expressive intensity and vocal colour that the w

Ruby Hughes and Huw Watkins at the Presteigne Festival by Christopher Morley

It's fascinating to seek out links in the shrewd programming artistic director George Vass brings to the Presteigne Festival, certainly one element in the annual event's rewards which draw returning visitors year after year and which will intrigue new faces. This recital from soprano Ruby Hughes and accompanist Huw Watkins was a case in point. Entitled "A Charm of Lullabies" it did indeed have a largely underlying theme of babyhood and sleep, but there were so many twists in the tale here, with a disturbing pessimism belying the balm of a sunny afternoon outside. The many moods of Britten's own Charm of :Lullabies already exemplified what was to come: Hughes' intensely committed response to texts, tone opening out into glorious bloom, Watkins' generous ability to capture the essence underlying every texture of piano-writing. And what wonderful texts these are, as are almost all of them -- Christina Rossetti, Dickinson, Larkin, Yeats, depicting the p

BCMG and Karl Marx by Christopher Morley

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group kicks off its new season with a showcase of music responding to the political theories of Karl Marx, marking the bicentenary of the philosopher's birth. No fewer than 14 world premieres feature in this project going under the title Wilde Lieder Marx Music, which will take in Birmingham, London and Trier, Marx' birthplace, the new works coming about via crowd-funded commissions through BCMG's innovative Sound Investment scheme and through a competition which filtered 71 entries from 16 countries, resulting in nine prize-winners. Among the recently-announced winners is Birmingham Conservatoire graduate Alistair Zaldua (I had the nerve to teach him contemporary music -- he, who had worked with Stockhausen in Darmstadt, was charmingly tolerant), whose Manifesto, for speaker and one-to-a-part orchestra, gained the ensemble prize. An early Septembershowcase concert launching BCMG's new season will begin with a pre-event taster featur

CBSO with Debussy at Symphony Hall by Christopher Morley

Despite the best efforts of all the various vested interests simultaneously contriving to make Broad Street a no-go area, the clogging of the Five Ways traffic-lights, and the closure of an advertised diversionary route, I just about managed to get to beleaguered Symphony Hall in time for this remarkable all-French concert from the CBSO. Debussy's magical Nocturnes painted their aural pictures with a subtle underlying impetus, conductor Ludovic Morlot etching together wonderful mosaics of sound from an array of solo contributions, though very special was the fabulously distant trumpet panoply in Fetes. Spaced out across the choir stalls, the CBSO Youth Chorus sang magically and scorelessly in Sirenes, many of them breaking their holidays to perform here. Lili Boulanger was not much older than these youngsters when her short life came to its painful close in 1918, and perhaps her astounding setting of Psalm 130, Du Fonde de l'Abime was a desperate vision of her demise.

National Children's Choir at Birmingham Town Hall by Christopher Morley

During the long summer holiday, Birmingham in the heart of England is the natural hub for young people gathered together to make great music, as our reviews attest. But what visitors make of the building-site shambles which is Birmingham City Centre, from Centenary Square, across Paradise Circus and into Victoria Square can only be guessed at. I know it makes me more than depressed. Friday's visitors were the splendid youngsters of the National Children's Choir of Great Britain, expertly trained and unobtrusively disciplined as they celebrated the Choir's 20th anniversary. With singing, and every other musical activity, disappearing from state schools (apparently teamwork, mutual responsibility, confidence-building, communal achievement are infinitely less important than SATS results) ventures such as this become increasingly vital, and this concert was triumphant proof what can be achieved. After a variety of offerings from NCCGB's various well-structured ensemb

Stratford Virtuosi Orchestra by Christopher Morley

Just completing its 17th year, Rimma Sushanskaya's week-long Virtuoso Violin festival course continues to produce results which are nothing short of breathtaking. Activities always conclude with a string orchestra concert in Shakespeare's burial-place, and this year the scratch ensemble, comprising so much talent both promising and achieved, truly deserved the title of Stratford Virtuosi Orchestra. It was a joy to welcome American guest Roger Mahadeen to conduct the first half of the evening. Coming with an impressive CV, he drew a remarkably mature, effulgent tone from these 20 musicians playing with a freshness and enthusiasm which perhaps can only ignite at one-off occasions such as this. In Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (for once opening a concert instead of creeping in as an encore) the cellos' singing of the chorale melody was glorious. Mendelssohn's youthful B minor String Sinfonia really caught the imagination of these youngsters, its inner lin

CBSO and Lili Boulanger by Christopher Morley

Daughter of a Russian princess, sister of one of the 20th-century's most formidable musicians, first-ever female winner of the Paris Conservatoire's prestigious Prix de Rome, and with Asteroid 1181 Lilith subsequently named in her honour. Lili Boulanger died exactly 100 years ago in 1918 at the age of 25 after a life plagued by illness. Yet during the few years allowed her she composed music of amazing visionary power, often with a strong religious impulse. It is muscular, uninhibited, even gaudy in its colours, and never fails in getting its gripping message across. Her elder sister Nadia, like Lili a pupil of the great Gabriel Faure, was determined to keep Lili's memory alive, promoting her music wherever possible. And thus it was that Birmingham became acquainted with Lili Boulanger's work in 1967, when Nadia, beloved teacher of Anthony Lewis (who had become Peyton and Barber Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham), arrived in the city at the Pro

National Youth Orchestra Of Wales by Christopher Morley

Thanks to the splendidly-planned and executed CCTV coverage in Hereford Cathedral during this year's Three Choirs Festival we were able to share in Carlo Rizzi's beatific smile and gentle baton-clap on the palm of his hand as this stunning account of Mahler's Fifth Symphony from the National Youth Orchestra of Wales came to an end.  Now an elder statesman of music in Wales, and nowadays sporting an avuncularly Verdian beard, the Italian maestro, not generally renowned as a Mahler conductor, drew from his well-trained young charges a reading which was high in adrenaline, breathtakingly accomplished in technique, and movingly committed in terms of emotional content. To meet such music in one's youth must be a life-changing moment for teenagers. String tone was rich and supply phrased, woodwind made such telling contributions (and for once one could see and hear the point of Mahler's theatrical "Schalltrichter auf!" demands, when the instruments are rais

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain Symphony Hall by David Hart

At 70 the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain isn’t the world’s oldest youth orchestra (the NYO of Wales started three years earlier) but it’s the most illustrious, and with more than 160 players makes a formidable sound. Indeed, the programme for this short tour (Snape, Birmingham and BBC Proms) bristled with sonic delights. The conductor was Sir George Benjamin, whose undemonstrative demeanour and minimal beat had the quiet authority of a kindly uncle – and produced remarkable results. Although individual contributions were sensitively executed Mussorgsky’s Night On The Bare Mountain tended to shriek a bit at its loudest points; however, when ears had become fully accustomed to these large forces Debussy’s La Mer at the end of the evening never seemed over-inflated. In this riveting account changes of mood and texture seem to arise naturally rather than by manipulation, and Benjamin brought a composer’s ear to the shifting relationships between primary and supporting material.