Music and Theatre Reviews (Leeds)

Leeds Living Review Archive (March 2016–December 2017)

All of these reviews were first written between early 2016 and the end of 2017 for Leeds Living (www.leedsliving.co.uk), where some of them may still be read. They are collected here for whatever interest may be taken in them.

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‘Of one that is so fair and bright’, Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Thurs 21st Dec 2017

An eclectic evening of fine pieces and jolly performances—a truly festive musical offering.

The lights are off. The choir enters and surprises the audience by spreading out around the room. This gives to their performance of their first piece, Thomas Tallis’ Videte miraculum, something like a surround sound effect, placing the audience at the physical heart of the music. To the plainchant Verbum supernum, prodiens the choir returned to the stage, and the house lights come on. Then follows a fine performance of Byrd’s Vigilate. Already it is clear to us in the audience that this is hardly to be a routine concert, and, indeed, constant surprise was one of the themes of the evening.

After the Byrd, conductor Graham Ross turns around to a warm applause, and gives an introduction to the choir and the programme, which will focus on the worship of the Virgin Mary and the unexpected daylight, or oriens, which she and Christ bring to, and in, the darkest and shortest days of the year. Ross explains that the programme title which expresses this connection, ‘Of one that is so fair and bright’, was most likely written around the time of the founding of Clare College itself, c. 1326.

The next set of pieces came from modern composers: Howard Skempton’s Adam lay ybounden, Richard Wilberforce’s Remember Bethlehem, Cecilia McDowall’s Now may we singen, Sir John Tavener’s Today the Virgin, and John Buxton’s Long, long ago. These pieces were much more of a trial to sit through, lacking the contrapuntal sophistication of Byrd and Tallis. Indeed, even the Tavener was much less mellifluous than his more famous pieces.

After this cycle, the choir returns to Renaissance music with the massive Magnificat quinti toni of Hieronymous Praetorius, which rounds off the first half of the evening. Here Ross introduces the piece as the choir re-arranges on stage. This ingenious work mixes the texts of the Magnificat (in Latin) with the popular carols Josef lieber (in German) and In dulci jubilo (in German and Latin). Ross explains that there are other little musical jokes (scherzi) in the piece, such as when the alto parts are clearly left suspended for far too long. ‘This is not a mistake’, Ross explains, ‘we just think Praetorius had one drink too many on Christmas Eve’.

The piece, and the rapport, both proved to delight, and made a perfect segue into the less serious, and more frivolous, second half. To begin this next part of the concert, the choir entered not the stage, but the balcony above. At this stage (pun not intended), although I generally enjoyed the choir’s inventive use of space, I felt this was a bit showy, since it made no real, perceptible difference to the sound. From here they sung Charles Wood’s Hail, gladdening light, unfortunately Englished from the Greek of Phos Hilaron (3rd Century): the translation was not half bad, but how wonderful it would have been to have had it in 3rd-century Greek! Next was the famous and pleasing medieval anthem Gaudete (author unknown), with Graham Ross taking up the tambourine.

Next came William Mathias’ A babe is born, and John Gardner’s Tomorrow will be my dancing day. These were more annoying and muzak-like, but were mercifully followed by Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin. The contrast—that is, the upsurge in the quality of composition between the Britten and the forerunners, was stark to say the least. This was followed by Pierre Vilette’s Hymn à la vierge, which, though not quite so fine as the Britten, contained much enjoyable post-Debussian harmony.

Next was a piece by an alumnus of the choir itself, Joshua Pacey (b. 1995, making this reviewer feel a bit older than he would like, and rather more underachieving). This piece featured a beautiful solo soprano line over rippling, close, and tense harmony. Next we had an arrangement of Away in a manger, which was perfectly acceptable, and John Rutter’s What sweeter music, which was not, although the poem to which the bad music was set (by Herrick) was exceptionally good. Similarly, Will Todd’s My Lord has comeproved a wearyingly sentimental piece.

Here the programme moved onto its last leg, where more or less all sobriety was done away with. This decision showed a great consideration for what we might call the theatre of the concert hall. Graham Ross’ slightly overgilded arrangement of Silent nightled the way, followed by exceptionally good-humoured performances of Santa Baby (my favourite) and The twelve days of Christmas. The encore was Michael Bublé’s version of Santa Claus is coming to town. These were all very well received by the audience, especially the balcony-planted trumpet impersonator in Santa Baby, and the joyful choreography introduced into The twelve days of Christmas.

Although I might take issue with some of the pieces, this would be fussy: the whole programme was thoughtfully—I dare say lovingly—arranged, and contained enough variety always to be pleasurable (even in some of the more trying pieces). The high quality of the musicianship was beyond all doubt or question. Even in the weaker pieces of music, the quality of the voices, intonation, pronunciation, expression, and all those virtues one expects of a great choir, were present, and greatly to be enjoyed. This made an excellent—jovial and joyful—way to bring Christmas in. Thanks to the choir and Howard Assembly Room for bringing a bit more light to the season!

www.howardassemblyroom.co.uk

www.clarecollegechoir.com

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Benjamin Appl and Joseph Middleton – Schumann Recital – Howard Asembly Room, Leeds – 22/11/17.

A fine evening of consummate musicianship bolstered by a well chosen and imaginative programme.

Benjamin Appl was the last private student of the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the influence of perhaps the greatest singer of the twentieth century is audible in the student. Of all the vocal soloists Leeds has recently hosted—and we have had some very great ones lately—Appl has perhaps the greatest sensitivity for the sonority of the word in music, and communicates a vision of the art of the Lied as a unity of poetry and music. This is greatly to be praised. Joseph Middleton—pianist for the evening, and the director of Leeds Lieder—graces Leeds’ fortunate stages regularly. His accompaniments are always sensitive, supportive, and mellifluous, and tonight was no exception. The duo walk onto the stage—with great expectation on my part, and with warm reception from the audience.

As the first notes of Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebtefell upon the audience with a wonderful lilt and faultless clarity, I concluded—after years of internal debate—that one does not in fact need to be fat in order to be a very fine classical singer. Indeed, with his pompadour and skinny suit and tie, Benjamin Appl would look as at home with an electric guitar as beside the piano. And throughout the night, Appl’s performance was distinguished by a beautiful transparency of word, both in English and German. Perhaps this was assisted by the skills of the composers in their use of texture and the conjunction of note and word (Beethoven in particular shows a great sensitivity to the words of his songs). Or perhaps the relatively dry acoustic of Howard Assembly Room played some role in this (the difference between it and, say, the Clothworkers Concert Hall is like night and day). But all the same, such fine articulation cannot be but praised. With such a sonorous clarity, even my plateaued-at-intermediate German could make sense of most of the songs.

What ought also to be mentioned is the sense of drama which Middleton and Appl brought to the texts. The classical song is really a dialogue between the piano and voice, and both Middleton and Appl responded to their parts—and conveyed them with—a language of gesture which enhanced the communication of the sometimes obscure subjects. So often, non-German audiences stand to miss much of the sense of the songs they hear (although, in a good performance, the specific emotion is always clear), but on this occasion—and especially with the assistance of programmes bearing both the German lyrics and a translation—there seemed no such risk. Indeed, between songs, rather than the usual noise of coughing, was the sound instead of people turning the pages of the programmes—which signalled a very engaged, lively, and responsive audience. This was probably also owing in no small part to the manner of Appl’s communication with the audience, with whom he managed to maintain a quite astounding degree of eye contact, which drew people into the texts without distracting them from the music.

And it was hard not to be engaged through at least the first half, which had more variety, consisting of Beethoven, Ivor Gurney, a contemporary composition from 2015 by Marian Ingoldsby, and some of Grieg’s German songs. The second half, given over to Schumann’s Dichterliebe, did not grip me as much as the first. Nevertheless, the audience seemed to remain rapt throughout, and it was perhaps my own personal difficulties (not dislikes) with Schumann that diminished my engagement here, and drew my focus towards the discomfort of my chair, which, by the middle of the second hour, was quite egregious. But this was perhaps my fault for not stretching my legs in the interval.

The Gurney and the modern composition were given in a very fine English for which Appl humbly apologised. This was utterly unnecessary, since, as said above, his clarity and articulation were beyond reproach. Yet his humility, along with his overall gentlemanly charisma, won the audience over entirely. I might add at this stage that Appl was afflicted with a frog in the throat for a fair part of the performance, and after he made it through one particularly and evidently taxing song towards the start of the second half, concluded it with a spluttering (albeit suppressed) cough, whereupon the audience applauded him for his fighting spirit. I was sure that a joke about Theresa May would follow, but apparently it was too obvious, or not obvious enough.

Perhaps it was owing to his throat-frog that Appl’s dynamic range seemed to go from only a pianissimo to a mezzo-piano for much of the evening. This was mostly exquisite—and far better than the other way round: we all know the horror of the shrill, warbling soprano, and I would generally like to encourage quiet rather than loud music as a universal habit. But here his clarity occasionally suffered when the piano part took on a thicker texture or a louder dynamic, at which points, the words of the poem would be somewhat drowned out.

But this is quibbling. The performance was indeed very great and a highlight of the musical season, perhaps only bested by the Schubert duets concert given by Middleton with Nika Goric and James Newby in October. Appl is perhaps the greater singer, but Schubert is vastly Schumann’s superior. To end the evening, Middleton and Appl chose Britten’s arrangement of the folk song ‘The Sally Gardens’—a perfect conclusion for the evening.

www.liedslieder.org.uk

www.howardassemblyroom.co.uk

www.benjaminappl.com

www.josephmiddleton.com

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‘Nothing Like the Sun’, Gavin Bryars Ensemble, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Wed 25th Oct 2017

An opportunity to hear Shakespeare’s immortal Sonnets set to music opens up a space to gain and give a renewed appreciation of the poems, but leaves the music in the dust.

I arrived in the manner I do to everything—two seconds shy of being late. (Sometimes, for variety, I make it two seconds, twenty minutes, or two hours proud of being late—in both senses of the word proud.) The Shakespeare Sonnet settings mostly occupying the second half of the programme, the first was mostly given over to instrumentals. The first of these was a quartet (viola, cello, double bass, and electric guitar), which was more gloomy than pensive, more slow than meditative. Next the stage was invaded for an octet, adding piano, percussion, another viola, and a clarinet to the foregoing. Here I reflected that it was quite nice to have that little tyrant, the violin, away, so that the viola, which received a lot of the melodic material, could play. However, this piece, like the last, spun a lot of atmosphere, without a lot of activity within the sphere, and a pattern begun to emerge in my expectation—along with a dread—of a monotonous evening. Thankfully, the harmonies arrived occasionally at nice, ear-catching chords replete with flattened fifths and extensions. The texture was thin, only rarely (cumulatively, about five seconds) thickening, and the same was the case with the volume. As one might expect, at times the music was too ponderous. Indeed, I could see the pianist’s score from my (really very good) seat, and I began to feel sorry for her, and hoped the gig paid well at the very least. At times such Max-Richter-esque sound would give the impression of completely adequate incidental music for television or film, but nothing good as per itself.

For the third piece, a setting of the 40th Sonnet (‘Take all my loves, my love: yea, take them all’), a new ungentleman entered the stage. He was like a stouter John Cooper Clarke with a bald head, to which he added a black suit, paisley scarf, block sunglasses, and a microphone. “Good Lord,” I said to myself, “What is he going to do with that thing? Surely he won’t be making any music.” And that he didn’t. Murdering Shakespeare is what he did. He was a spoken word artist, and all the music was Shakespeare’s. “What can this latter-day Falstaff (without the wit) do for Shakespeare?” my inner ratiocination asked again. I concluded, not a lot. Perhaps my antipathy was a result of his molestation of the microphone, rubbing it as he did over his cheeks, and almost his jowls. (“I hope that’s not property of the Assembly Room!” I inwardly cried again.) Perhaps it was the general affectation of his performance, the wandering off into the crowd without the microphone (small mercies!) shout-whispering the last line of the Sonnet over, and over, and over, as if to say, “Charles, you will never enjoy Shakespeare again—I will be sure to make it so.” He left the stage, and I was happy to get back to the previous monotony—or, if you like, out of the fire and back into the frying pan. In an interesting turn of the screw, I later learned that this gentleman was in fact the author of the music to this particular Sonnet, and indeed it was the best music of the night, featuring, alas, actual melodic activity and perceptible structure. I was reminded that no one is all bad.

The fourth piece, rounding off the first half, was called ‘The Flower of Friendship’ (2009). The first two had been called ‘It Never Rains’ (2010), and ‘The North Shore’ (1994)—so much variety of title, so little reflected in the music. Indeed this one-style-fits-all-occasions style of composition seemed miraculously to be just as capable in depicting the absence of rain, north shores, south shores—shores anywhere you like them (including Bohemia) as it was friendship, friendship’s flower, or whatever concept’s flower you liked. And I could only conclude from Bryars’ music that all these phenomena must to him be occasion for the same effusions of great sorrow and misery.

I spent the interval reading, but briefly conversed with the gentleman next to me (who, though gentle, cared not what I had to read for when). Now, in yet another turn of that screw, I learned that he loved the music, and even the lovemaking between the microphone and the spoken word artist, Mr Friday. This gentleman used the metaphor of waves to describe the music, to which I agreed—yes, they ebb, they flow, but they never really go anywhere new, and they are all indistinguishable from each other. Then the musicians come back on stage, to which my gentleman locutor (I cannot say interlocutor) said, “Here comes your pianist!”, whose technique I had complimented. Trying to cover my abashment with dryness, I responded “Yes, there’s lots to like about her.” Whereupon a roar of laughter emerges from the man, in nearly enough quantity to blow me from my seat and into the rafters. Perhaps she was more his pianist than mine.

Anyway, the ensuing Sonnets. The first is #60 (‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore’).—Waves! My gentleman locutor will enjoy this one, if he takes his eyes of the pianist for two seconds. As for me, I was huddled in terror as the speaker came back on stage. In this half however, after we suffer through the speaker’s rendition of the sonnet (to music) we are treated—ah, it is like going from purgatory into paradise!—to the fine voices of tenor John Potter and soprano Sarah Dacey. “Now thisapproaches a fit musical realisation of these Sonnets,” I thought. Sure the backing music was dull as anything, but now it actually was background, not foreground, to the real music of these wandering monodies.

The only thing with this half, was that it basically does the same thing eight times: one suffers the speaker, and through the music, to wander into the massive, complex, contemplative and imaginative spaces opened by the perfection of Shakespeare’s words. As a colleague of mine said on the way out, the good to come out of the whole evening was merely the chance to contemplate a small selection of these great and complex poems with an attention which seems to be hard to bring to them fully in the busy everyday of life.

In the third Sonnet (#128), Mr Friday gesticulated his hand in front of his face, telling me that he must have some problem with restlessness. He moves his fingers as though they’d just been crushed by a sledgehammer and he were checking for breaks. However, by the fourth Sonnet (#94), I feel immune to him, and concentrate on the nice piano solo. She does have a wonderful touch, and I can see why my gentleman locutor likes her. “Would that we were the keys!” he seems to say to me without words. “Well,” I thought back to him, “if we were, we’d probably be the 80 or so which this music doesn’t ask her to play.” Such is life.

As Friday Good-Fridays (i.e., crucifies) Sonnet #102, one of the very finest ever written, my focus is on the clarinettist lifting his glasses to inspect his reed, this being at the time the most interesting thing on stage. Still, when Sarah Dacey gets up to sing the almost late Romantic melody, very well judged and fitted to this Sonnet, the effect is almost faultless. “Sonnet #146, just two more after this one.” This time the clarinettist entertains me by cleaning his bass clarinet—a big job, as all know who are acquainted with this instrument, and indicative of the protraction of Mr Friday’s recitations. But what a wonderful execution in cleaning the bass clarinet! I was affixed throughout! I wanted an encore, and would have had him clean the entire stage of mediocrity.

The great #55. This time the clarinettist holds my attention by playing through Mr Friday’s (mis)reading—by far the least pleasing entertainment yet. Next please. We are near the end, and the music has reached no higher than mezzo forte all night, and I have seen hardly a single semiquaver, apart from the viola arpeggios, love for which (the reader will recall) I have not shown, or felt. #64. The last one, the last one! My seat is only vaguely comfortable and I have things to do. Please, gods, please let there be no encore.

“Does Bryars know what a sonnet is?” I reflect. “The music of the form is lost in the monotony of the music. O no! The speaker has come back at the end of the piece. Away! I hate it like an unfilled can,” as Sir Andrew Aguecheek says. I thought we had seen the last of Mr Friday, but he must, it seems, have the last word. He just keeps saying “When I have seen,” over, and over.—Better seen than heard, I say.

Still, the evening rolls to a close, without encore, and I am sure there is a Shakespearean quote on Time to summarise all this, perhaps the words of Time himself in The Winter’s Tale: “I, that please some, try all.” One general consideration remains, and that is why Shakespeare’s Sonnets are not more popular in music. A. E. Housman is set virtually from the moment of first publication and without a pause right up until yesterday, I imagine. Problems rush upon me: the sonnet is a perfect form for musical setting; England has (unjustly) been described as “the land without music”. Are we too cautious with our national poet? The Germans are not too precious with Goethe, and indeed much of their greatest music rests on that foundation. Indeed, Schubert even set Shakespeare—in German! And over here, we have a few curios—Thomas Arne, and not a lot more. Therefore I submit a challenge to composers: give Shakespeare’s sonnets a setting worthy of them, and let us have—to paraphrase Sonnet #1—from fairest creatures, our desired increase.

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A Survey of Classical Music Events in Yorkshire, October to December 2017

It is a very fine season for music in Yorkshire, with plenty of opportunities to see fabulous musicianship, imaginative programmes and classic and novel repertoire, all in gorgeous settings.

Leeds and West Yorkshire

Starting with Leeds, we are, as always, blessed in having our International Concert Season at the Town Hall—which every other Saturday evening brings world-class orchestras to the heart of Leeds, as well as hosting its usual free lunchtime Organ concerts and Wednesday lunchtime Chamber music concerts. Highlights from the International Concert Season must include those to be given by the Orchestra of Opera North in late November and early December, which consist of refreshing, mostly English programmes (with a bit of Mozart thrown in), and whose thoughtfulness looks well placed to come off as a highlight of the Autumn/Winter season.

On that note, we are equally blessed by Opera North themselves—who have done and every year continue to do exciting new things both on and off the stage, and in and out of the theatre: you may, for example, be one of the lucky people who gets to witness their impromptu, free performances in Leeds’ Trinity Centre, or you may benefit from the wonderful U30s scheme, which makes the opera available to young people for very reasonable prices. Their series of “Little Greats” also features some wonderful, rarely staged productions including composers as varied as Ravel, Janacek, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, and Bernstein. We urge music and theatre fans not to miss them! They will tour around various northern cities after their stay in Leeds. Of course, the Howard Assembly Room, as always, boasts a fine and rare programme too.

www.leedsconcertseason.co.uk

www.operanorth.co.uk

www.howardassemblyroom.co.uk

The Venue at the Leeds College of Music continues its series of concerts (some of which are free), and the Clothworkers Concerts at the University of Leeds continues its years-long run of Friday lunchtime, Sunday afternoon, and evening concerts, all of which are free for students—of any university—and many of which are free to all. The highlight on their programme must be the three concerts of Schubert Lieder (14 Oct, 1 Nov, and one in March 2018), with stars such as Joseph Middleton (all concerts) and Mary Bevan (second concert).  Having, at the time of writing, just attended the concert of the 14th—Schubert’s settings of Goethe, featuring the divine Nika Gorič (soprano) and James Newby (baritone)—I can say that, if this concert was anything to go by, then the following concerts are unmissable. Mary Bevan and Joseph Middleton will also give a free masterclass on Tuesday 31 Oct. Other highlights at the University are the viola concert to be given by Timothy Ridout (Jâns Coleman accompanist), The Choral Music of Schubert (Friday 17 Nov, 1.05, free) and The Otchestral Music of Schubert (Sat 18 Nov, 2.30, free). Just up Woodhouse Lane, at St. Mark’s House, the Yorkshire College of Music and Drama also hosts occasional lunchtime concerts.

www.lcm.ac.uk/whats-on

www.concerts.leeds.ac.uk/

www.yorkshiremusiclessons.co.uk/

Leeds Minster continues to feature wonderful Organ concerts on Friday lunchtimes, and glorious Evensong services in term-time. A recent addition to their programme of events is the “Rush Hour Concerts” at 5.55 on selected Mondays (tea and biscuits from 5.30). A fine programme is lined up for this Autumn.

www.leedsminster.org

Sinfonia Leeds will give a fine programme consisting of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Debussy’s ‘Iberia’ (from Images), and de Falla’s Suite from ‘The Three Cornered Hat’ at reasonable prices in St. Edmund’s Church, Roundhay on Sat 11 Nov. Haydn fans should also watch out for the Leeds Haydn Players, Sat 18 Nov at South Parade Baptist Church, Headingley. (Tickets available on the door, or call 01943 466 331 to book.)

The Huddersfield Music Society are celebrating their Centenary this year. The events programmed are of an appropriate magnitude for the occasion, of which the highlight must be the very fine pianist Angela Hewitt, who will be performing Bach’s Keyboard Partitas Nos. 3–6. All the Society’s concerts are held at Huddersfield’s St. Paul’s Concert Hall, a converted church which makes for an exquisite concert space. As ever, Huddersfield also proves a great place for Contemporary Classical music, as is well demonstrated by the expansive programme for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (Friday 17–Sunday 26 Nov).

http://www.huddersfield-music-society.org.uk

www.hcmf.co.uk

North Yorkshire

As we reach North Yorkshire, we would be foolish not to mention the upcoming production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at the lovely Harrogate Theatre. The production will be the debut in Harrogate for the Olivier Award-winning company, OperaUpClose.

www.harrogatetheatre.co.uk

Anyone who knows Harrogate music knows the best kept secret of Wesley Chapel’s concerts. As always, they have a number of fine Lieder concerts lined up for various lunchtimes, and the highlight of their piano programme—which is always impressive for getting world-class pianists—is Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (Sat 28 Oct), playing Beethoven’s fifth Sonata, Schumann’s F minor, Ravel’s Miroirs, and Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse.

http://www.wesleychapelharrogate.org.uk

 

Over in York, the wonderful York Guildhall Orchestra have sadly wrapped up until 2018, leaving us, firstly, the great boon of the National Centre for Early Music. One highlight of November will be the Ebor Singers’ performance of Palestrina’s Missa Cantantibus et Organis in honour of Saint Cecilia (Sat 18 Nov).Even more exciting is the concert to be given by Leah Stuttard and Agnethe Christensen (Thurs 23 Nov) on ‘The Secret Life of Lutheran Chorales’, exploring the Latin polyphonic and Scandinavian folksong roots of the still popular Lutheran melodies. The Centre hosts a number of fine things over December, highlights being the Orlando Consort performing Christmas music by Pérotin, Dufay, and Jacobus Clemens non Papa (Sun 10 Dec), The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments playing a huge array of folk music (Sat 16 Dec), and the Chiaroscuro Quartet, who will give two performances on Sat 9 Dec, and one performance on Sun 10 Dec, over the course of which the audience will be treated to exquisite perfomances of six of Haydn’s greatest Quartets, those of the Opus 76, which includes the ‘Sunrise’ (Op. 76, No. 4), and the ‘Fifths’ (Op. 76, No. 2). Bach’s exquisite Musikalisches Opfer (A Musical Offering) to Frederick the Great will be performed by BarroccoTouto at lunchtime on Fri 8 Dec, and the evening concert for that day will be a performance of Christmas music by Purcell, Bach, Scarlatti, and others by Elin Malahan Thomas (soprano) and Elizabeth Kenny (lute and theorbo). Sunday 10 Dec will also treat us to Concerto di Margherita’s programme of self-accompanied madrigals—very much in the sixteenth-century style! Finally, Wed 13 Dec will feature The York Waits playing a variety of Tudor music for a variety of Tudor instruments. A great programme, and one not to be missed. All of the National Centre for Early Music’s Concerts allow £5 tickets to students and those under 35.

www.ncem.co.uk

 

St. Michael-le-Belfrey will host the Yorkshire Bach Choir on Sat 28 Oct, with a fine programme of Tallis (Spem in Alium), the Allegri Miserere, the less well-known Media Vita of John Sheppard, and Ne Irascaris, Domine, by Byrd. Finally, Gilbert and Sullivan fans will not be disappointed: Patience will be performed by York Opera (at the Theatre Royal), 8–11 Dec.

www.yorkshirebachchoir.co.uk

www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

 

As ever, Richmond boasts a rich musical life and calendar, hosting the amazing Escher String Quartet at the Influence Church (Sat 11 Nov), playing Mozart #18 in A, Mendelssohn #4 in E minor, and Grieg #1 in G minor. The Royal Northern Sinfonia will also play the church (Sat 21 Oct), performing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, Nos. 1 & 4; Strauss’ very moving Metamorphosen; and one of Mozart’s graceful Serenades (No. 11, K. 375).

www.influencechurch.co.uk

 

The Town Hall in Skipton will also have the very fine Doric String Quartet on 17 Oct 17, and a wonderful ‘Celtic celebration of Yule’ by the medieval music ensemble Joglaresa on Tues 12 Dec.

http://www.cravendc.gov.uk/concerthall

South Yorkshire

The Firth Hall at the University of Sheffield, like Leeds’ Clothworkers, seems especially in love with Schubert this season. Their ‘Schubert in Sheffield’ series follows Leeds’ lead, with the same performers! On Tues 24 Oct, the exciting Ligeti Quartet will give an imaginative programme based on the theme of ‘remembering the future’ (an allusion to a lecture of Luciano Berio), beginning with three fugues from Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue), then moving on to a dizzying array of modern works, from Webern and Stravinsky, to Joanna Bailie, George Nicholson, and Sofia Gubaidulina’s Reflections on the theme B-A-C-H. This looks set to be an exciting and memorable concert. The divine Mass in B minor of Bach gets its usual performance, Sun 5 Nov, by a range of talented musicians, including singers from the excellent English Touring Opera, Viva Voce chamber choir, and several more.

www.concerts.sheffield.ac.uk

The renowned Harry Christophers and The Sixteen will give a concert Thursday 19 Oct consisting of the surprising but promising mixture of Poulenc and Palestrina at Sheffield’s Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Paul. And, on Sat 25 Nov, Elgar’s wonderful setting of Newman’s Dream of Gerontius will be performed by the Sheffield Oratorio Chorus.

www.sheffieldcathedral.org

Sheffield’s Music in the Round, mostly hosted in the city’s beautiful Upper Chapel, is a boon to the city’s Chamber Music life. The next concert (Sat 21 Oct) is the Marmen Quartet, playing Ravel, Beethoven, and Haydn. Justly, it is sold out. But keep an eye out—there can always be late cancellations! On Thurs 26 Oct, the local group Ensemble 360—founded indeed by Music in the Round—will play less well known pieces by Bach, Schubert, Bowen, and Mendelssohn. Ensemble 360 will also give further concerts throughout the season of a greater number than can be detailed here. On Sat 28 Oct, the Van Kujik Quartet will play the popular second Mendelssohn and Debussy Quartets, which will bookend a newer piece, Nishimura’s Quartet #2, sub-titled ‘Pulse of the Lights’.

Also exciting in the programme is the themed concert ‘Strad in Rio’, which brings together Brazilian music with Classical soloists such as Viktoria Mullova (violin), Matthew Barley (cello), Paul Clarvis (percussion), and João Luis Nogueira Pinto (guitar). This is part of the thematic series ‘World of Strings’, a celebration of the varieties of stringed instruments across the globe. The concert is at the Crucible Theatre, Fri 17 Nov. A fine end to the year will be made on Sat 16 Dec as Music in the Round’s current singer-in-residence, the very great Roderick Williams, will give a concert of seasonal music by Purcell, Vaughan Williams, Peter Warlock, Bach, and Britten in tandem with Sheffield-born mezzo-soprano Anna Harvey, and with the Sheffield Young Singers, directed by Helen Cowen.

www.musicintheround.co.uk

 

East Yorkshire

Moving on to East Yorkshire, The Sixteen will repeat their Palestrina-Poulenc programme at Hull’s lovely Minster (a.k.a. Holy Trinity Church) on Thurs 26 Oct,

http://www.hullminster.org

And at Hull’s City Hall the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will give a Russian concert of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov on Thurs 9 Nov, with the superb cellist Leonard Eisenbroich playing the former’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. The Russian theme continues on Sat 25 Nov when the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra plays Tchaikovsky—this time with Calum Smart playing the unbelievably beautiful Violin Concerto—and Shostakovich (Symphony #12, ‘The Year 1917’). Of course, the 1812 Overture is on the programme in order to fill seats, and has as little to do with the ‘Revolution’ theme as does the Violin Concerto, although at least in the case of the latter, the beauty of the music justifies any crimes against programming! The City Hall will continue its usual series of monthly lunchtime Organ showcases from 1 Nov. Hull’s New Theatre will also receive performances of Opera North’s ‘Little Great’ operas, detailed above, 26–28 Oct.

http://www.hulltheatres.co.uk

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Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Saturday 30th September 2017: Sibelius, Prokofiev, Saariaho, Mahler, Zimmermann

Having some familiarity with her recorded performances, I was delighted to learn that the very fine violinist Leila Josefowicz would be gracing the stage of the Howard Assembly Room at the end of September. She was just as her reputation precedes her: excellent and most at home in repertoire of the twenty-first century, and a more than able fiddler in other areas, too. Her pianist, John Novacek, I had been previously unaware of: but as well as a fine pianist, my post-concert research tells me he is also a talented composer, for evidence of which, see his Three Rags for Two Pianos.

The programme begins with the crowd-pleasing Valse Triste of Sibelius, arranged for violin and piano by Friedrich Hermann. The softness and lyricism of the piece allowed Josefowicz quickly to show off the huge palette of sound that she is capable of extracting from her violin. The warmth and richness of her tone in this little dramatic masterpiece told us we were in for a captivating evening.

The remainder of the first half of the programme was occupied with Prokofiev’s F minor Sonata, which, like much of Prokofiev, showed a fantastic sense of humour in its rapid switching between the lyrical and infernal. Throughout, Josefowicz handled the many challenges of Prokofiev’s directions flawlessly (even if I did once see her left hand wrist briefly collapse—albeit with no negative effect on the sound of the music). The particular highlights here were in Josefowicz’s control of counterpoint on the violin—where both voices sang in perfect clarity—and the fiery passages in which the strength of the low G string was used to its fullest capability, sounding as large as a cello.

The interval comes, Josefowicz and Novacek take a bow: she is wearing unusual concert dress consisting of dark jeans and a blouse more of arabesque than drapery; Novacek looks as if he were going to a business meeting after the concert, and doesn’t have time to change afterwards. As my co-attendee and I dissect the first half over a pint of Leodis’ best, we are dismayed to pay £1 for a programme, but, understanding the financial pressures upon the arts, acquiesce.

The second half begins with what seemed to be the soul of the concert, the very fine ‘Calices’ (2009), or ‘Chalices’, by Icelandic contemporary composer, Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952). The piece, says our programme—demonstrating its enormous £1 value—is “partly inspired by a series of Arthurian plays”—no small thrill to my colleague and co-attendee, who is a scholar of that sort of business. Three extremely atmospheric, intelligent, and imaginative movements formed this aforementioned soul—and a very fine trinity it was, too. The highlight was the use of plucked strings on the piano in the middle movement, “Lento. Misterioso”, in combination with the sustain pedal, creating harp-like, and even harpsichord-like sonorities.

Next was an arrangement by Otto Wittenbecher of the much-admired (and justly admired) Adagietto from Mahler’s even more glorious 5th Symphony. The arrangement was very intelligently done, but something—we could not decide whether it was in the arrangement or its execution—was lost in this reduction for piano and violin. This is fine, and in the nature of arrangement: but it did not gain anything particularly insightful in this new guise—apart from a sharper clarity in its harmonic movement—to make up for the loss of the beauty of its original version for string orchestra and harp. Although very beautiful, the effect tended to make this vast symphonic ode a piece of nineteenth-century parlour music.

The programme came to a close with Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1950 Sonata. This piece seemed an odd choice on which to conclude the programme, being, as it is, intelligent more than it is moving, and moreover, sometimes sardonic to the point of being irritating, as often the twentieth century’s art can be. In this, which seemed a mirror to, or shadow of, the Prokofiev, rather than an interesting variation on it, the audience’s attention did begin to wander, but a nice time was had in those moments when our concentration did return.

Still, the applause evidenced that the evening was thoroughly and highly appreciated by all attendees. After a bow, Novacek sits at the piano, and Josefowicz introduces the encore: “Tune you might know… But I’ll tell you anyway,” she smiles, as the audience laughs: “’Smile,’ by Charlie Chaplin.” The audience warmly chuckles again, and the evening comes to a divine close on a perfectly chosen, piece—humane, comic, and sweet. Bravo, Leila and John: Leeds will be happy to have you back any time.

The Howard Assembly Room has a wonderful array of events lined up for this Autumn, including musical settings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Messiaen’s Harawi, the jazz-classical crossover pianist Uri Caine, and several more, all at very reasonable prices.

www.howardassemblyroom.co.uk

www.leilajosefowicz.com

www.parkerartists.com/John-Novacek.html

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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas—A Ballet by Daniel de Andrade. Northern Ballet at West Yorkshire Playhouse. 5th September 2017

A production that wears its sentimental vision of humanity on its sleeve, but pleases throughout by virtue of its flawless execution.

So here we are, waiting to receive a touching, tender, tragic tale of two boys, one the son of a commandant, the other a prisoner, set in Auschwitz. A tragedy of friendship set within the holocaust… Sounds a bit superfluous, doesn’t it? Indeed it is. By the middle of the second half, the audience is audibly agreeing as, between scenes, there erupts the sound of two hundred or so people shifting in their seats, their patience for the trite tale beginning to wear.

Yet for all this, the production remains gripping throughout: the atmosphere of nastiness and ever-incipient death hangs over every scene, throwing the innocence celebrated in the pas-de-deux of the two boys into sharp relief. This atmosphere is spun via some very fine if slightly obviously derivative music and extremely effective and evocative lighting and set design.

“Set design” may be an overstated term, since the settings are created only by spare and intelligent use of a few props. A kitchen is made by a well-placed table, bread, cheese, and a maid, the rest of the stage being a shroud of mist and blackness. Auschwitz is created merely by a barbed wire fence bisecting the stage, or a gate headed with „Arbeit macht frei”. And the commandant’s office is nothing but a desk and a whiskey bottle (with two rather than one glasses).

Perhaps these effects come off so well because the production sets a foot both in the realist and the figurative domains. Deserving of special mention in this regard is the allegorical figure of death (the programme lists her as “The Fury: The spectre of Adolf Hitler,” but, since she is an allegorical figure anyway, we can interpret her as we like), who stalks not just the camp but almost every setting and scene of the ballet, including the pleasant domestic spaces in which her black robes and sinister movements shock and startle, hauling Auschwitz into the comfort of the home. A less benevolent reviewer might say, however – and not without some justification perhaps – that the costume evokes more of The Mighty Boosh’s monster Betamax than Seneca’s “death with eager teeth”.

But this would be quite unfair to pick a quarrel, and on such slight grounds, with the most striking and memorable character of the production. The great strength of the production, and this character in particular, is making Auschwitz at times unbearably close and real. This is perhaps best achieved in the simple gesture at the ballet’s conclusion – one of few set pieces in the production – when the rounded up prisoners, just before shrinking into the chambers at the back of the stage, rush to the front, reaching a hand out to the audience.

Had the production ended on this note, the review might be wholly positive, but the final tableau, a scene of Dickensian melodrama and sentimentality, brings out the underlying problem not with the production – which can hardly be faulted, and which is undoubtedly the work of artists at the top of their game – but with the story: that it at times fetishizes its subject in favour of drawing, redrawing, and condemning the crimes of the Shoah.

This fine production runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse until Sat 9th Sept (with two showings on the final day), and will play at Hull’s New Theatre Oct 18th–21st.

www.wyp.org.uk

www.northernballet.com

~

National Theatre’s Hedda Gabler, broadcast to City Varieties, 9th March 2017

We, the gentlemen of the press, with our most welcome and appreciated complementary drinks in hand, shifted to our seats to see upon the resplendent screen—a relatively new addition to the wonderful City Varieties—the audience of the National Theatre. After a short feature on commissioning new plays, the great Hedda began.

Our City Varieties would in fact have been only 25 years old when Hedda Gabler was published and played in 1890, making it particularly well-suited to the staging of Ibsen. However, wanting that, the screen—which filled the stage space—made do, and at times during the very atmospheric production one felt perfectly engaged, albeit that we were seeing something not purelytheatrical, due to changing camera angles and shots. All these were well placed and selected, giving occasional cinematic flourishes without taking over from the form of the theatre itself.

As for the National Theatre production itself: the adaptation did away with the set so exquisitely described by Ibsen in his text, and which is vitally important to the symbolic weight of the drama, keeping only the indispensible two pistols of Hedda’s late father. Gone was his portrait, and the other symphonic apparel which make up the texture of Ibsen’s drama.

So this was an adaptation: the spirit, not just the language, of Ibsen translated. The Tesman house in which the whole play is confined was, in lead actress Ruth Wilson’s words, like a symbol of Hedda’s mind—bare, arid, oppressive. And, by Hedda’s final suicide (which took place on stage, gracelessly, and with some horrendous death agonies), it is clear the play has become a 21st-century commentary on mental health awareness.

However, keeping so strictly to Ibsen’s script, the production never quite decides whether it belongs to the nineteenth century, or the twenty-first. This was well illustrated by Wilson’s Hedda and Rafe Spall’s Judge Brack. The moving restraint that drives Ibsen’s social drama has given way to postmodern egoism: alone, Hedda has a peculiar episode of flower-smashing (and, oddly, stapling of flowers to the walls of her home), all set to a Joni Mitchell song. This is repeated no less than four times. We also get the Cohen-Buckley “Hallelujah”, and Nina Simone.

Brack, a brilliantly ambiguous character in the text, is played completely odiously—and tremendously successfully—by Spall as a sexually aggressive and frustrated manipulator. His scenes with Hedda are overtly erotic and borderline abusive and, by the end, he is spitting Big Tom tomato juice on her face—at which point we are unsure whether his function is as literal person, or personification of her conscience.

The production is furthest from the spirit of Ibsen both at the beginning and the end, and these are the least successful parts. However, for the most part, the performance is atmospheric and absorbing, with the highlights being the end of the first half and the beginning of the second. The tonal control in these most successful sections merit praise: Hedda’s pathos is real, but still when, complaining about her husband, she shouts: “Academics are no fun!” the theatre roars with laughter. — For this doctoral candidate, a hit a bit too close to home.

All in all, definitely an odd production, but with much to enjoy. Next time, let’s see live Ibsen at the Varieties, with historical nuance, subtlety, and restraint, and that will be a real treat. Archer or Oxford translation, please.

The National Theatre production will be touring the UK from October.

The City Varieties and NTLive have a superb programme lined up for the coming months:

Twelfth Night – 6th April

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead – 20th April

Obsession (Adaptation of 1943 Visconti film) – 11th May

Peter Pan – 10th June

Salomé (new play by Yaël Farber) – 22nd June

Angels in America, Pt I – 20th July

Angels in America, Pt II – 27th July

Yerma – 31st August

www.cityvarieties.co.uk

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

www.ntlive.co.uk

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Northern Broadsides’ Cyrano, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. 28th February 2017

Edmond Rostand’s masterpiece receives a sensitive, lively, and spirited reinvention by Northern Broadsides and the glittering wit of Deborah McAndrew’s script. 

Cyrano de Bergerac (the protagonist of the 1897 play, not the real early-seventeenth century writer) is a man of accomplishments: he is the finest poet of his milieu, the best swordsman, and an infallible gentleman. But he bears two, interrelated, crosses: the first, the undying love he harbours for his physically and spiritually beautiful cousin Roxane, and—what makes this a problem—his enormous nose, which he believes renders him too ugly for love. So his friend Ragueneau puts it before the lead character’s entry:

‘His uniform is picturesque: a hat with triple plume,

Doublet, cape, and sword, worn like a peacock’s tail.

From the eyebrows up, he’s all feathers,

From the neck down, it’s buckle and swash –

But squeezed between is a nose – a nose…

A modest poet such as I must fail entirely

To describe this gross, immodest, monstrous nose!

He may remove his feathered hat, his sword, his clothes…

But the face of Cyrano de Bergerac was fixed by God,

And only death will free his soul at last

From the terrible tyranny of that tremendous nose.’

No attempt is made by this script to mimic the classical French alexandrine metre and consistent rhyme of Rostand’s play. It is probable that such a thing would sound clunky and unnatural on an English stage. Then again, I have never seen it done: it would be at least a worthwhile experiment. Nonetheless, despite what some (including the present reporter) might find an oddly rough-and-tumble verse-come-prose style, the script glitters with rhymes and jokes, making it most certainly a play to delight lovers of words.

Much of the comedy arises from that seemingly insurmountable divide between the (slightly pretentious) aspirations of classical (or classically minded) literature, and the unavoidable paraphernalia of the everyday, such, of course, as an unfortunate nose, or Ragueneau’s need to make a living as a baker (whose wife bags their products using his old manuscripts, which he buys back from the customer, resulting not only in financial loss but also in a too-buttery ‘Sonnet to Phyllis’: ‘Ah,’ he complains, ‘Phyllis, all greasy!’).

The play—and the audience—enjoys this superb abundance of jokes whilst the more serious and substantial part of the plot moves on. Roxane has fallen in love with a handsome new cadet, Christian. He loves her back, and Cyrano is enlisted to assist him in his suit, to which he acquiesces, being a) too hopelessly ugly ever to win Roxane’s love for himself and b) too much of a gentleman not to assist the woman he loves. So the love triangle moves on, growing achingly more sad as the play approaches its end: and here the power of the script—as well as the great performances from the three lead players Christian Edwards (Cyrano), Sharon Singh (Roxane), and Adam Barlow (Christian) in particular, and the excellent supporting cast in general—deserve high praise for their tonal control, so that the comedy never tramples the genuine pathos, nor the pathos the comedy.

And of the rest of the team: the lighting in this production makes use of a very slight touch: very rarely do distinct effects take centre stage; instead, the energy of the language and the performers (which is considerable) carries the production onwards. Deserving of particular mention are the costume, prop, and set design teams from the New Vic Theatre: the physical setting of the play is pleasingly full of the texture of the seventeenth century, with beautiful geometrical iconography decorating the backdrops, which are frequently exploited in tandem with character placement in order to create powerful suggestions.

One good example of this placement would be the imposition of the sun above Roxane, which resulted in the suggestion that she, as Cyrano’s muse, plays a nourishing, sustaining, and generative role to the poet. The costumes feel authentic, sensitively reflecting in dress the huge variety of social strata in Rostand’s drama. Also deserving of praise is the ingenious use of a fat lady disguise towards the play’s end—for what purpose, it would ruin the joke to say. This reporter’s only complaint would be that occasionally the northern accents would collide oddly with the authenticity sought after by the New Vic team. But this is often a problem in translating French social life and drama into English anyway.

All in all, a very joyful production, full of songs, rhymes, jokes, occasional iambs, and, by the end, profoundly moving, too. It is my pleasure to recommend it. The play continues nightly at the West Yorkshire Playhouse only up to and including Saturday 4th March. After this it tours a number of northern theatres. It should also be added that for a mere £5 attendees can exclusively purchase Deborah McAndrew’s inventive adaptation, published in a good edition by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

www.northern-broadsides.co.uk

www.wyp.org.uk

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City of London Sinfonia – Leeds Town Hall, Sat 18th February 2017

Britten, Suite on English Folk Tunes

Finzi, Clarinet Concerto (soloist Michael Collins)

Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending (soloist Alexandra Wood)

Beethoven, Seventh Symphony

 

Conductor, Michael Collins

 

Britten, Suite on English Folk Tunes (1974)

As I slunk, a few seconds from being late, into a seat in the dark back part of the Town Hall, the applause for the conductor’s entry died down and the music began. The first notes of Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes—subtitled, after Thomas Hardy, ‘A time there was’—gave an immediate sense of control from the orchestra and string section in particular, who were faultless throughout the evening. However this sense was not quite shared by the percussion, which (as those who know the opening of the first movement, ‘Cakes and Ale’, will know) bears the peculiar risk of becoming displeasingly predominant over the strings as they share and exchange music.

The second song, ‘The Bitter Withy’—no marks for beautiful language, Mr. Britten—for strings and harp, allowed the harp to shine out radiantly, a pleasure for this beautiful instrument so often somewhat lost in dense orchestral textures. The third song is a spot of jaunty snake-charming dance music, not worth the pains of being sat through. The fourth, almost solely for fiddles, is a glory—one of the few that resembles folk music—and reminds one of the barbarous energy of Bartók’s Duets for Two Violins. The final song is a melancholy, or maudlin, (depending on your temperament) farewell. Here one recalls the piece’s inscription: ‘Lovingly and reverently dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger’. Altogether, this monument to the English twentieth-century interest in folk art—being one not often seen gracing the stage of Leeds’ Town Hall—made a pleasant surprise.

Britten remains—aside from the usual three or four pieces—underexplored on Leeds’ concert scene. It would be good to let some of his many interesting underplayed pieces see the light of the Leeds stage.

Finzi, Clarinet Concerto (1949)

The pleasant novelty of the programme continued with this piece, probably Finzi’s best. Despite this, there are moments where the music simply passes octaves inanely, but the audience do a fine job of looking interested, and the orchestra try to make it as engaging as they can. Here conductor Michael Collins also played the solo clarinet parts. The soloist-conductor, you might think, would seem to give a performance more energy, there being on stage less dead wood: but the reality is that the stage presence—of the full-time conductor, of the silent contemplative soloist, and of their interaction—was missed. And not least because the soloist, to this reporter at the back, appeared to be a Leeds Town Hall pillar. As so often, the slow middle movement made the soul of the performance, and here the glistering warmth of high strings, along with the rich depth of sonority of the low, could not be faulted. The final movement tries to bring us to a sprightly end, as is the custom: and does it somewhat well.

Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending (1914)

After the interval, our evening took a decline: what had been a refreshing programme now covered surely the two most overplayed pieces in the whole canon—apart from Barber’s Adagio, of course. Soloist Alexandra Wood played the piece flawlessly and with great beauty of tone; but what else can one say of a brief piece that is so well known, even to non-classicists, and to which no refreshment was brought? A pleasant sedation.

Beethoven, Seventh Symphony (1813)

Before the evening rollicked to a close in the fiery conclusion to the Seventh, Collins and the London Sinfonia took us through the well known turns of the dance movements, and the famous Allegretto. The orchestra was its very best in the dancelike moments, instilling a certain freshness in old wood through the precision and liveliness of the players’ articulation. Here again the strings merit special praise. The famous second movement, always effective, benefited from great warmth and depth of sonority, but gave no really new aspect to this old warhorse.

It remains a mystery why this programme, two natures in one, was put together. Perhaps the thought was that the second half would put bums in seats: but it made mine squirm in mine. Vaughan Williams, like Finzi, Britten (and other 20th-c. British composers who would have suited this programme better than Beethoven, such as Gurney, Delius, Walton, Lennox Berkeley, Arthur Bliss) has pieces much more worth stage exposure than The wretched Lark; and Beethoven has been coining it ever since he stuck the seventh on stage: for a man who wrote so relatively few orchestral works, we give him a lot of our time at the concert hall. Nevertheless, despite this gripe-giving incongruity, the pieces were played to the highest standard, and the audience received the offerings with great favour, making an overall night well spent. The reporter looks forward to the next Leodiensian visits of the London Sinfonia and the soloists, and wishes well to the man whose wallet he picked up in the gents’.

www.alexandrawood.com

www.michael-collins.co.uk

www.cityoflondonsinfonia.co.uk

www.leed.gov.uk/leedsconcertseason

www.leeds.gov.uk/townhall

~

The Merry Wives of Windsor by Northern Broadsides. West Yorkshire Playhouse. 6 April 2016.

A supremely witty and jovial production from one of the most distinctive and interesting Shakespearean playing companies working today.

It is quite appropriate that, ahead of this under-appreciated comedic gem devoted to the drunken and amusingly ineffectual money-grabbing schemes of Sir John Falstaff, the reviewer and his companion—his Nim, Bardolph, or Pistol—put themselves out of pocket for a too-large meal and overenthusiastic libation. Merrily falling into the theatre (almost late), we took to our seats just in time for the opening words.

‘Sir Hugh, persuade me not’

As one who finds the occasion on which to read an early Shakespearean comedy rare, it was a pleasant, surprising reminder as the secondary players set the scene for the wading on stage of Barrie Rutter’s Falstaff of how, even at his most frivolous, the bard’s virtuoso phrases embrace depth, substance, and constantly surprising invention. It is especially good that this was so in the production’s first half, which, being given a very sparse treatment as regards props, scenery, and the rest, was almost completely carried by the language, and its conveyance by the actors. The production set the scene in a Gatsby-esque world of leisured, moneyed boredom, and aligned with surprising ease and grace with the jesting spirit of the playwright’s original design. The action took place before some extremely plain, abstract—one might even say, penitential-looking—trees, and upon a strangely unattractive tiling, suggesting something like the Buchanans’ manor.

This reviewer had been wondering before the production how Mr Rutter—whom he remembered from (and as) a rather unvigorous King Lear in a production of yesteryear as a slim gentleman—would be as Sir John Falstaff, and, as he waddled on stage in a costume stuffed with one or two goodly-sized pillows around his waist to the general and uproarious amusement of the audience, we saw that there was to be no disappointment. In fact, even Rutter’s long grey hair and beard, and his well-recorded persona as a pretension-scorning free-thinker and –speaker, make of him something of a latter-day Falstaff in miniature. The godlike rage of Lear he may not have, but the wit of Falstaff, I dare say he does.

As has been said, the first half required the kind of dexterity which Rutter brought to his part without fail. Many of the other actors did likewise. Especially memorable were the performances of the two wives, Mistresses Page and Ford—played by Nicola Sanderson and Becky Hindley—whose intentional over-acting in the culmination and close of the first half, the famous scene in which Sir John is tricked into hiding in a wash basket, which is then thrown into the river, put one in mind of those famously bad good actors in Blackadder the Third. Some other players lacked that strength, occasionally falling short in projection or clear enunciation. But these are minor points, and not one member of the cast can be faulted for their energy—a virtue which every Northern Broadsides production to which this reviewer has been privy has had in abundance, and which makes them so very well-suited to high comedy.

It is with the famous basket that props are really introduced in any notable way for the first time in this production. Hitherto, the entire show has been carried by the excellencies of the language, and its speakers. For this reason, the first half had a tendency towards torpor, until it ratcheted up to the hilarious basket scene. (Rutter’s Falstaff says of himself, almost directly to the audience, “And you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking.”—A huge laugh ensues.) The second half, however, made considerably greater use of surrounding objects.

The ‘arras’—in truth a sort of cylindrical frame draped over with cloth—in which Falstaff has already hidden himself once from the, for want of a better word, protective Mr Ford (before escaping in the basket) comes to use again as the wives trick him for the second time. Pretending to be “the Mistress Ford’s maid’s aunt, the fat woman of Brentford”—renamed in this production, to the great amusement of the audience, the fat woman of Ilkley—the arras comes down to form a huge gown surrounding the corpulence of Rutter’s Falstaff, even veiling him with a broad-brimmed hat of the same cloth. What the wives have not revealed to Sir John is Mr Ford’s hatred of the fat woman: “He swears she’s a witch, forbade her my house, and has threatened to beat her.” And so follows a suitably hilarious chase of the “fat woman” by Ford and his attendants around, off, and back on stage several times over.

‘I was three or four times in the thought that they were not fairies.’

With this line, and the greatest laugh of the night, does the action begin to settle to its close. Hitherto, the final set-piece is upon us, in which Falstaff is tricked, upon meeting the ladies at midnight, into believing he is witness to a procession of fairies, who duly pinch him and burn him with their tapers as Rutter ineffectually takes refuge atop a tree (actually, a ladder). The visual opportunities are wonderfully exploited in this great concluding spectacle, in which the red-cast lighting changes the floor tiles and everything about them to unnatural brightness, suggesting a quite convincing mystical scene, in view of which one can nearly sympathise with Sir John for falling.

All in all, a delightful production. Northern Broadsides remains one of the great assets of theatrical culture—or simply culture, for that matter—in the north. This warmly-recommended production remains on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 16 April, after which it continues touring around several venues in and outside Yorkshire.

http://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk

http://www.wyp.org.uk

~

Inaugural evening for Leeds Lieder Festival: live broadcast of Radio 3’s ‘In Tune’ and opening concert, ‘Songs of the Sea’. Leeds College of Music, April 2016

A delightful smorgasbord—for both spirit and ear—of musical and extra-musical delights across Leeds Lieder Festival’s two opening events.

The people of Leeds were treated to two great events to open this year’s Leeds Lieder Festival at Leeds College of Music, whose celebration of its fiftieth anniversary coincides with the festival. The festival was inaugurated by a live broadcast of BBC Radio 3’s much-loved programme ‘In Tune’ with an array of guests and musical styles, which was followed by a more formal concert, consisting of a selection of Lieder and poetry readings under the heading of the ‘Songs of the Sea’.

‘In Tune’ has long proved to music lovers to be an effective and pleasurable way to while away those sighing hours between siesta and dinner with its panoply of performances by and interviews with all kinds of artists, presided over by the benevolent wit of presenter Sean Rafferty. Therefore it was with great anticipation that this reviewer switched off Radio 3 one afternoon to go listen to Radio 3—live.

Our snowy-haired presenter entered the stage to delight us with a few minutes’ compering, and only so much time in which to solve some technical issues, through which he remained good-humoured, saying, ‘It’s terrible! They took Joan of Arc away for less than this!’ These issues solved, it was to the Leeds College of Music Jazz Trio (tenor saxophone, double bass, guitar) to provide a euphonious and dark-paletted introduction.

Next the spotlight fell to 1995’s Cardiff Singer of the World winner Katarina Karnéus and the equally great accompanist (and director of Leeds Lieder Festival) Joseph Middleton for some Scandinaviana, amidst which there was a song by Sibelius to remind us why he is better known for his orchestral works.  After one of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder the half hour section closed with an unexpected, slightly stupefying reading of a Christina Rossetti poem by actor Rory Kinnear, sporting the very worst combination of jeans and red fleece as has yet assailed this reviewer’s eyes.

After breaking for a news broadcast—as Rafferty observed, a sure damper to the spirit of any event—the next half hour went to the pianism of Kathryn Stott, who inflicted her love of Fauré on the audience at length and without mercy. The third half hour belonged to the great Roderick Williams, Mark Padmore, Julius Drake, and (again) Rory Kinnear. This was essentially a teaser for their full-scale concert later in the evening, but also happened to be the high-point of the In Tune broadcast—unsurprisingly, Roderick Williams being, as well as the Festival’s artistic director, and a talented composer and arranger, one of the great baritones working today. And, accordingly, his performances were the most enthusiastically received.

The final quarter of In Tune (which came too quickly) was book-ended by marvellous performances by the Jazz Trio, manifesting their fastidious rehearsal and some ingenious and very beautiful soloing. After their first piece, they received the courtesy of a brief interview, which seemed to them to be an inconvenience. This was followed by another interview with the Leeds College of Music’s Director of Curriculum, the sartorially distinct Professor Joe Wilson, who celebrated the conservatory’s virtues in view of its fiftieth anniversary. Amongst these virtues are numbered its size (1,200 students), its range (degrees are available in classical, jazz, popular, music production, and music business), and its general successes. Also celebrated was the moveable panelling in the present concert hall, which can be adapted to more or less any musical situation to produce the best available acoustic. The programme rounded off with an interview with Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher, and organist James McVinnie, who is performing the former’s new suite of pieces for pipe organ, of which there will be a performance on the wonderful Leeds Town Hall organ on Wednesday 6th April (details here: http://www.leeds.gov.uk/townhall/Pages/Event.aspx?s=5417).

The remainder of the evening belonged to Roderick Williams, Mark Padmore, Julius Drake, and Rory Kinnear, and their programme of songs on the sea. It would be presumptuous to criticise such artists as these, all of whom are preeminent in their fields and who execute their art with the utmost technique, care, and facility. The programme, however, is another matter. It is constructed so as to give us a poem, then a song, then a poem, and so on. The first half is composed of that tradition of twentieth-century song (and mostly Victorian poetry) which can seem tediously laboured next to, say, Schubert’s Lieder. The only real highlight in this half was the almost unknown song ‘The Seal Man’ by the brilliant and underrated Rebecca Clarke.

The second half turns more towards the German Romantic tradition, first with Mendelssohn (the beautiful duet ‘Wasserfahrt’) and Schubert, then moving through art history to Brahms and Wolf, then falling again into the prosaic twentieth century with Elgar and Britten. The evening has been blitzed throughout by Kinnear’s poetry readings. Clearly Kinnear is a brilliant actor, with a unique sensitivity to the musical qualities of words and the ability to communicate difficult sense with clarity that belong to that art. The problem, however, is that he reads lyric poetry dramatically. This works tolerably, say, in Matthew Arnold, in which the poem dramatizes the poet’s own speaking voice, but for the most part simply makes a Procrustean bed. Hardy’s phrase ‘cold currents thrid’ is quite harsh enough without attacking every consonant, and just because Tennyson’s Kraken rises ‘roaring’, that does not justify roaring that utterance at one’s audience.

The evening is well received, and the delightful encore proves that any evening can ascend from middling to great by that means. We are treated to a beautiful arrangement, by Roderick Williams, of the hymn Shenandoah—for four voices! It was a pleasant surprise to witness Drake and Kinnear leaving their respective stations for an a cappella vocal quartet of beautiful and really—considering that they are not professional singers—quite complex harmony.

~

Saturday 12 March 2016. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic & Leeds Festival Chorus conducted by Simon Wright, with violinist Leticia Moreno and vocal soloists Rebecca Evans, Jennifer Johnston, Ben Johnson, and David Wilson-Johnson

A mixed but enjoyable evening of sublime Mendelssohnian comedy in his violin concerto, and tragic grandeur in Michael Tippett’s famous oratorio.

The considerable collective of orchestra, large chorus, and five soloists gathered this evening to play two behemoths of the concert repertory. Performance and pieces were of mixed quality albeit with much to recommend them, resulting in a worthwhile but ultimately less memorable evening than is usual from the Leeds International Concert Season.

Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto

Over the gentle undulation of the orchestral opening enters the solo violin’s exposition of the melody, instantly signalling soloist Leticia Morena’s facility on her instrument, if also an exaggerated vibrato. The louder sections of the orchestra initially drown out the violin, but this is quickly remedied, and by the end of the movement the opposite seems to be true. The control in Morena’s phrases is without fault, if very tried and tested by violinistic tradition, and the fullness of the instrument’s sonority—especially on the lower strings—is deeply enjoyable, the sweetness of tone being exploited to the full in the lyrical second theme and cadenza, in which the violin radiates around and fills the hall.

As this cadenza closes, I conclude that Morena is slightly inclined to exaggerated expressions—of vibrato, rubato—but am, overall, impressed as the movement crashes towards its end. The lyrical and melodic second movement requires similar dolce expressions to the second subject of the previous movement, and Morena again carries them off superbly. The high point of the movement, and perhaps the concerto as a whole, is in the minor section in which the violin plays a number of double stops around a pedal on the open A string. To this Morena does great justice, partly through her love of volume, and partly as a result of the near impossibility of executing quick-changing double stops with vibrato.

In the bridge to the third movement, the soloist’s great sensitivity of expression was unfortunately blemished by the small error of her bow’s hitting a neighbouring string. Though small, this very basic error clearly affected the soloist’s confidence as the music progressed into the highly demanding final movement, composed principally of very rapid semiquavers.

As this movement of unsurpassed wit and grace began, Morena was dogged by intonation errors and even a very apparent inability to execute one of the runs, on which she simply had to stop and re-join the orchestra at the next bar. A shame, but these semiquaver passages ask such virtuosity as to stupefy whenever they are successful. She regains her confidence enough to play the rest of the movement without howlers, but the spirit never quite recuperates until the very end, whereat the union of violin and orchestra communicates the genius, beauty, and joy of this most brilliant and ingenious of concerti with power and aplomb.

Tippett, A Child of Our Time

The first thing one notices in this performance is that the chorus are in black tie, and the orchestra white. The resulting dissonance and confusion is a fitting framework for the rest of the evening. The first notes of Tippett’s piece spell deep tragedy and beauty spelt out with long, dolorous notes and fine discords. The balance both within and between the orchestra and chorus is perfect. This is a credit owing to the excellent conducting of Simon Wright, whose comprehension of the one-hour piece’s architecture ensured that it was communicated with clarity and interest throughout, even at the bottom-hurting final minutes which are the con of every concert. (The reviewer always recommends exploiting the twenty-minute interval for alleviating seating discomfort with a slight walk.)

The problem with oratorio in a language we understand is that we can make out the often woefully bad poetry of which it is composed. So far as I know, Tippett originally approached T. S. Eliot for a libretto but Eliot, not wanting poetry to swallow music or vice-versa, and not knowing what musical crimes his poems would later be subjected to, advised Tippett to write his own. Therefore we are subjected to a text which oscillates between quite good lines—

Man has measured the heavens—

That end in disappointment:

with a telescope.

And those which are simply bad:

Chorus: What of the boy then?

Bass: He too is outcast.

Coexistent—and therefore incongruous—with such plainness are phrases which are not too objectionable, but slightly silly in their gnomic pretences:

Patience is born in the tension of loneliness. The garden lies beyond the desert.

There are hundreds of such examples. Suffice to say, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau himself could not make ‘telescope’ into euphonious musical utterance.

Any acquainted with this piece will know it is peculiar for its use of spirituals as summative choral pieces. Some think this a masterstroke on Tippett’s part, universalising the particular in his commentary on oppression. (A Child of Our Time is about Kristallnacht.) But to my mind, these always sound like appropriations by a western intellectual, and never naturalised in the way the Volksmusik is in, say, Gershwin, Ives, or Bartók.

Soprano Rebecca Evans is to be praised for moving delivery and fine negotiation of the piece’s demands for elegiac whispering and plangent wailing. Alto Jennifer Johnston deserves credit for her clarity and dolorosa expression, tenor Ben Johnson for his moving gentleness and quietness, and bass David Wilson-Johnson delivered all sections with evenness and beauty of tone and depth of feeling.

However one may feel this piece falls short, one leaves the concert hall with a secure and lofty impression of the depth of Tippett’s humanity and sense of moral and political justice. For more information on coming concerts, see leedsconcertseason.com. A number of discounts are available, including £5 under-26 tickets in the week before the concert.

~

Pianist Aristo Sham with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Garry Walker, Leeds Town Hall, Saturday 5th March 2016.

A safe-but-sweet programme of classics executed with intelligence and energy in the beautiful setting of Leeds Town Hall.

On Saturday 5th the faithful throng of Leeds’ concert-goers, removing themselves from the cold of an early March evening into the warmth of the full, well-lit Town Hall, nestled themselves in their seats and prepared for an evening of music from the first half of the nineteenth century: Schubert’s Ouverture im Italienischen Style, D. 591 (1817), Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (1809), and Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony (1829–42). The orchestra was well turned-out, with men in coattails, and a pleasant anarchy among the ladies.

Schubert, Ouverture im Italienischen Style

With Schubert’s short introductory piece, the orchestra and conductor Garry Walker immediately evidenced their thorough rehearsal and sensitivity to the music, performing its opening triple time Adagio with a liveliness and buoyancy which never once tipped into haste. Into the faster sections, the performers communicated the playfulness of spirit, the vocalesque melodies, and the rapid changes of articulation and nuance of mood which display themselves in this most carefree, Rossinian Schubert.

Beethoven, Emperor Concerto

As the applause for the first piece subsided, two suited stagehands rolled the Town Hall’s resident Steinway to centre-stage for the centrepiece of the evening: Aristo Sham’s reading of the Emperor Concerto. To courteous applause a very young and diminutive pianist walked on stage, wearing a blue and white spotted bowtie against the more commonplace black tie attire, his too-much trouser break, and, I saw upon his taking his seat, his complementary spotted socks.

At the keyboard, determination characterised his opening stance. Such was the virility of his playing, he seemed at times likely to launch himself from his seat. These moments of jaw-clenched sternness, however, were tempered by softer passages, such as the great pianissimo leggiermente second theme. Constituting the most beautiful part of the first movement, Sham rose to their occasion with a sensitivity which wasn’t quite so present in the forte sections, in which he tended to play more on the side of fortissimo.

The famous second movement was handled with great sensitivity by orchestra and soloist, the former calling back to mind the brilliance of contrast in navigating the dynamics in the Schubert. As this movement dovetailed into the third and last, Sham played the theme with such gusto, I thought he would head-butt the piano. And, in certain stormy minor passages, I felt sure his stool was a trampoline, so did the force he used on the keys almost propel him into the air. In this movement, the tendency to exaggerate the Sturm und Drang edged upon the faintly silly, with a number of the solo passages becoming merely raucous.

After enthusiastic applause and discarding the flowers with which soloists are ever burdened, Sham chose for his encore a parody of the Rondo alla Turca. Though familiar, I couldn’t name the later composer who mutated the original material into this rollicking sweetmeat of unfortunate parallel octaves and constant fortissimi. This key-pounding was clearly where Sham was most comfortable and entertained, and its crowd-pleasing mixture of the familiar (Mozart) with the novel (the violence done to Mozart) gave rise to the roar from the audience which it was calculated to exact.

Overall, Sham gave a great and thrilling appearance, albeit just shy of the utmost refinement—of which the pianist is clearly capable. His playing style yielded an impressive density of sound and texture which, despite its pleasures, seemed incongruous within the more introspective sound of the chamber orchestra. Perhaps Sham is better acquainted with—or prefers—later, more boisterous repertoire and the larger orchestras for which such music calls. Nonetheless, he played with a fire quite in keeping with the temperament of the composition, and navigated the fluctuation between sternness and tenderness in Beethoven’s music with an appropriate spirit.

Mendelssohn, Scottish Symphony

The Steinway is side-staged, its lid closed. The orchestra and conductor have excelled at drama and contrast all evening, and rescue the Scottish Symphony, using those skills, from its limitations. In less skilled performances the two outer movements, especially, can seem monotonous, as the brief, unsearching melodies become merely repetitious, rather than achieving sustained variation. Mendelssohn’s penchant for twee melodies is undertaken with seriousness by the orchestra, and in the stormy section of the first movement, bow hairs fly from their homes in flurries of semi-quavers.

The second and third movements—the strongest and the most memorable in the symphony—become highlights of the evening. The light-heartedness of the second plays to Mendelssohn’s compositional strengths, calling to mind, in this performance, the dappling of sunlight on the waters upon which the composer conducted his tour. The enjoyment of the orchestra was encapsulated by the leader of the second violins, who, literally on the edge of his seat, grinned at the audacious joy of the writing.

The third, an Adagio, possesses more substance by virtue of its involved—indeed, searching—melody, and is the real soul of the symphony. If the previous movement gave an idea of sun, this gave that of the melancholy setting thereof. The parting Allegro, although lacking the depth of the previous movement, benefitted from the musicians’ brilliant articulation of the thematic material. Particularly notable were the opening figures in the strings, which require finesse and grace of bowing, which these extremely well-rehearsed sections performed admirably. The cumulative drama of the movement gathered with magnificent gusto, breaking from a reflective duet for clarinet and bassoon, done with such care as to become the high point of the evening’s second half, into pomp and haughtiness. I wonder, however, whether, at this point, the orchestra quite succeeded in playing haughtily enough to persuade us that the symphony’s parting feeling of triumph was over something other than its own fallings short.

Nonetheless. All in all, an excellent, richly stimulating, and enjoyable evening of exhibited talent, technique, and artistry. For tickets and future concert details see www.leedsconcertseason.com.

It may be of interest to Leeds Living’s younger demographic that under-26 tickets are available in the week before any given concert for only £5.

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