Review: French song from Alice Coote and Julius Drake at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Drawing names such as Sarah Connolly and Dame Felicity Lott to the dreaming spires, the Oxford Lieder Festival has defined itself as a leading musical exponent on an international level. It was fitting, then, that Alice Coote and Julius Drake should open the final weekend of the eleventh festival. Ranging from the romanticism of Berlioz to Poulenc’s sardonic humour, the recital encompassed an eclectic mix of French repertoire from the late 19th century into the early 20th. I was interested to see what Coote and Drake would bring to the programme.

You can read my full review here.

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In conversation: The King’s Singers

The King’s Singers are two-time Grammy Award-winning a capella group founded in 1968. Today the ensemble travels worldwide, appearing in over 125 concerts each year in some of the world’s most famous concert halls. They have a discography of over 150 recordings, ranging from Bach to Bublé. Alongside their numerous concerts, The King’s Singers also run education projects and currently have over 2 million items of sheet music in circulation through their publisher, Hal Leonard.

I was lucky enough to speak with two members of The King’s Singers after their talk at the Oxford Union. David Hurley is the longest-serving current member (having joined in February 1990), and Christopher Bruerton is the group’s latest addition (February 2012). They sing countertenor and baritone respectively.

Do you approach each genre in a different way?

DH: We approach everything as a piece of music. Inevitably there are some differences between Renaissance, Classical and Pop pieces, but there is a cross-over of sound between the styles. We tend to use more of a breathy sound in the pop stuff than in the classical repertoire, but we don’t have a different sound for different pieces.

How often do you introduce new repertoire?

DH: There’s always stuff that we’re introducing. Sometimes it’s introducing it for everybody, and sometimes it’s introducing it to some of the group. We did a concert last night in Christ Church, Spitalfields. The second half was by request: people bought a raffle ticket, and the money went to the King’s Singers Foundation. If their number was drawn, they were given the opportunity to pick what we would sing next from a list of about 40 songs. For me it was relatively easy, but for Chris Bruerton (our newest member) there was an awful lot of stuff that he’d had to learn especially.

Current recording projects are a very fertile area when it comes to enhancing the repertoire. We’ve just recorded some Renaissance French music (including Josquin and Jacquet de Mantua), and very little of that music was in the group’s repertoire. We have a studio album that we’re recording at the moment, and basically every piece on the album has been especially written for this particular recording. That will be an hour’s worth of new repertoire, but generally it’s a piece here and a piece there. Sometimes you’re looking for a piece to fill a gap in a concert programme, so you look beyond the group’s current repertoire. People come into the group with ideas and people who’ve been in the group for a long time have ideas. People outside of the group offer us ideas, some of which we take up. We probably introduce a new piece every month.

CB: I remember that each of the first 5 concerts after Easter was a different programme. There were 100 pieces in the space of a week. I did find that a bit overwhelming!

How did you fit in learning them all?

CB: I spent as much of the Easter holidays learning them. Some of the guys use travel as a chance to catch up on sleep or do some of the other jobs that they have responsibility for. I feel that up until now every other waking hour on tour (if not at home) has been spent learning the music. I don’t feel that I can go for a nice stroll out around Prague, for example. It feels weird to go to a city and people often say, “Wow, you’ve been here and here!” but really I’ve just been to the concert hall, the train station and the hotel, but I haven’t actually been to Prague. It gives you a flavour of what these places are like, and I’ve drawn up a list of places I’d like to go to.

DH: A lot of the programmes that first Easter were very familiar to the rest of us. One of the disadvantages to joining the group is having to learn all this music that everybody else knows backwards because they’re not so inclined to spend hours rehearsing it jointly! It’s always a fantastic moment (I remember this when I was new in the group) when something that’s new to everybody appears and the playing field is suddenly levelled. That is a joyous moment!

CB: The project that David just talked about was the first time that I felt on a level playing field. It was a real relief to think, “Yeah, I can do this”. The rest of the time I felt I was playing catch-up.

DH: The truth is that everybody round you was struggling as hard as you were!

The group has been trying out some concept programmes recently. How have your audiences reacted?

DH: One programme we’ve done this year is called ‘Royal Rhymes & Rounds’, a CD and concert programme which looks at royal music through the ages (particularly in the times of King Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and the present Queen). It ties in quite nicely with this Jubilee year. It’s a lovely programme because it covers a lot of different styles of music. In a sense it’s a standard King’s Singers programme because it has Renaissance, Romantic, contemporary and light music – it has all the elements.

We did another album recently called ‘Pater Noster’, which is a very serious sequence of pieces looking at the different clauses within the Lord’s Prayer. It has a different setting of those words at the beginning of each section. It’s a fantastic programme of amazing music, but it’s not a standard King’s Singers concert because it hasn’t got the variety of repertoire (although you can sing the sequence and then go on to sing spirituals, so you can provide light stuff). Very often, we sing at a festival and we’re told that the festival has a theme. We went to one where they said that the theme was ‘Trees’, and we battle for ages to create programmes which relate to the theme: The Oak and the Ash, The Wishing Tree

CB: Often with very tenuous links!

DH:  You draw these pieces together, and then you arrive to see that people are playing Beethoven and Mozart

You must wonder why you bother!

DH: To an extent it does feel a little bit like that! They say “You’re so good, you really took our theme on board!” and we think that if we’d known we might not have done so much! Sometimes having a linked theme is a great way for the presenter of the concert to sell the programme. Instead of saying that there’s a mixture of Byrd, Stravinsky, Bernstein and all these strangely disparate styles of music, they can say that this links it all together: The King’s Singers and the theme. Ultimately, as a group you’re trying to help them fill the space in order to sing to as many people as possible.

It’s the group’s 45th anniversary next year, so what are your plans for that?

CB: I know we’ve got some pretty exciting trips abroad to places that the group hasn’t been to either for a while or ever! There’s a plan to go to South Africa (where Paul hasn’t been since his first tour abroad 15 years ago!) and it’s looking likely that in May we’ll go to South America for the first time ever! I’ve always wanted to go to South America, so it’s very exciting. I love music that’s Latin-inspired: jazz, or pop or rock or whatever. I was a percussionist before I joined this group so I love that Latin feel. To go to where it all started is great.

DH: Apart from celebrating by continuing to do concerts and tours… We celebrated 25 years, we celebrated 30 years. We had a single concert for 35. We celebrated 40 in a pretty major manner. I think that the idea is not to make too much of 45, but to make 50 really great. We’ll probably have a concert to celebrate.

How did your recent CD (‘High Flight’) come about?

DH: In 2008 we celebrated our 40th anniversary with three commissions: one by Eric Whitacre called The Stolen Child, which we commissioned with the National Youth Choir of Great Britain (who were celebrating their 25th anniversary), which we premiered at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. Our main anniversary concert was in King’s College Chapel on 1st May (which is seen as the actual birthday of the group). We asked our former tenor Bob Chilcott to write a piece. One of the pieces which he was going to set was the Prayer of St Richard, and then he found another piece he wanted to do. That was the poem by John Magee, who became a Spitfire pilot in WWI. He went up really high in his Spitfire and wrote this wonderful poem which has great meaning for pilots and astronauts which talks about touching the face of God. Bob was very moved by this poem and decided that he was going to set it, but he’d already started working on A Thanksgiving. He decided (as the generous man that he is) that he would send both of them. We suddenly had this amazing repertoire which we wanted to record, and there was other stuff by Lauridsen. We thought about choirs in the UK and there were lots of possibilities, but we have very close connections with the brilliant choir of Concordia College in Minnesota and their conductor René Clausen. We decided that they were the best choir to go with, and so the album came into being. It’s got some beautiful music on it by three of the great choral composers of the twentieth century.

To find out more, visit http://www.kingssingers.com/

Review: Sandrine Piau and Roger Vignoles open the Oxford Lieder Festival

The eighteenth-century Holywell Music Room was nearly full on Friday night as the Oxford Lieder Festival launched its 11th season. The French soprano Sandrine Piau and pianist Roger Vignoles treated the audience to an exquisite programme, mixing the French mélodies of Fauré, Debussy and Chausson with the brilliance of Strauss and the humour of Poulenc.

Piau’s shimmer of vibrato lent itself perfectly to the mélodie genre, bringing restraint and poise to the subtle textures of the opening Fauré and Debussy. She brought effortless dynamic variety to the wide-ranging vocal lines, her clarity of tone preventing the songs from tipping too far into the sentimental. At times she almost appeared to sing to herself, giving the performance an intimate quality. Piau had a perfect match in Vignoles, whose sensitive accompaniment captured the underlying ebb and flow that makes this repertoire sparkle. The end to Debussy’s ‘Apparition’ was heavenly, helped greatly by Vignoles’ careful placement of the final chord.

The Chausson invited a firmer sound from both partners, adding poignancy to the melancholic ‘Les Heures’. Although Vignoles deftly executed the hand-crossing in Les papillons, I felt that a touch more delicacy would have been appreciated. However, the balance was restored in Debussy’s Fêtes Galantes I, and the first half finished brilliantly with ‘Clair de Lune’.

More Debussy (Ariettes oubliées) followed after the interval. ‘Chevaux de bois’ broke the dream-like mood with vivacity and humour, morphing almost imperceptibly into the wistful close, before a tender performance of ‘Green’ saw a return to a more optimistic mood. Piau and Vignoles created a richer sound for Richard Strauss’ Mädchenblumen, and Vignoles captured perfectly the dark erotic undertones in the robust ‘Mohnblumen’.

The Poulenc with which the concert finished was in stark contrast to the rest of the programme. The quirky stylistic mixture in Deux poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire invited a spiky sound from both performers, Vignoles’ erratic piano part prompting chuckles at the abrupt end of ‘Hyde Park’. The satire of ‘Fêtes galantes’ from Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon was treated with abandon, the enthusiastic applause of the audience encouraging the performers to give two encores.

Altogether, a fine start which set a high bar for this year’s Festival.

The Oxford Lieder Festival runs from 12th-28th October 2012 http://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/

Just don’t mention Spanish guitar music! Roger Wright talks to Mark Damazer

 

Earlier this evening I took my seat in the chapel of St Peter’s College, Oxford. The large space (formerly a parish church) was bustling with music-loving fellows and students alike. The reason for this gathering was one of classical music’s most powerful figures: Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3. After an introductory question-and-answer session with Mark Damazer (Master of St Peter’s College and former controller of BBC Radio 4), Wright gave some fascinating insights into his career.

Wright skipped through his posts with the Cleveland Orchestra (as artistic administrator) and Deutsche Grammophon (where he became vice-president) which preceded his role at the BBC. Since his appointment to controller of Radio 3 in 1998, Wright has elevated the status of jazz and world music. He became Director of the BBC Proms in 2007.

It was on the Proms that much of the discussion was focused. Wright spoke of how he viewed them as a festival (not a season), with the balance between large-scale and distinctive crucial in lending the Proms their individuality. Even though some programmes would not be expected to draw big audiences (referencing this year’s Vaughan Williams ‘trilogy’ as an example: symphonies 4, 5 and 6 in one evening), the concert-goers are attracted by the bold and sometimes eclectic programming. Wright exemplifies Howell’s Hymnus Paradisi: although he would by no means rank it among the ‘best’ pieces of music, it deserves to be heard. It is this championing of the lesser-known pieces which gives the Proms their identity: they celebrate a vast range of repertoire.

It is not only the programming which keeps the audience coming back for more, but also the intimacy of the Royal Albert Hall. Despite its gargantuan scale (and less-than-perfect acoustics), Wright describes a full house as lending an intensity to the performance, particularly in late-night chamber recitals.

The conversation turns to the anniversaries of composers, and how Wright is careful in his treatment of the anniversaries of composers. Given their divisive nature, he is careful not to correlate events such as April 2012’s ‘The Spirit of Schubert’ with a commemorative year, thus maintaining the careful balance of the Proms. Wright denies the presence of quotas to maintain certain levels of new pieces, for example: he sees this as unrealistic.

Throughout the discussion, Roger Wright revealed himself to be a thoughtful and devoted music lover, revealing that he attends all of the Proms each year (even concerts including Spanish guitar music, the one type of repertoire he dislikes). His desire to give lesser-known pieces their airtime is clearly a formula that works for the listeners. He rejects any suggestion that Radio 3 competes with Classic FM, arguing that both stations are complementary.

When I arrived home this evening, I scanned the Radio 3 timetable once more. Even though I am a regular listener, the talk with Roger Wright has helped me to appreciate just how lucky we are to have such a resource at our fingertips (as the music critic Alex Ross has acknowledged). As I type, I am listening to Ivo Neame and his Octet: just another world-class piece of music which is but a click away.

A heavenly hour: Jonathan Dove at the RCM

Anita Klein’s stage painting for Seven Angels

Upon arrival at the Royal College of Music last night, I was unsuspecting of what I would be listening to. A close friend had organised the evening as a belated birthday surprise, and I was clueless. I was delighted to find out that Jonathan Dove’s mini-opera Seven Angels would be featuring on the programme. In May, I conducted and directed the public premiere of the work, so I was intrigued to see a different interpretation.

The first half of the concert consisted of a pot-pourri of Dove’s compositions, blending songs with excerpts from his operas. Ranging from the satire of Flight to the petulancy of ‘It’s my wedding’ (The Enchanted Pig), the selection covered a wide emotional and theatrical range. Students from the RCM proved themselves to be more than capable actors and actresses, Rachel Bowden’s hysterics provoking chuckles from the audience. Particularly memorable were the velvety opening tones of Joanna Songi: a capella and lit by just a spotlight, she set the bar high.

But it was the second half of the evening which I was looking forward to the most. Seven Angels (written for harp, soprano and countertenor) traces the life of the Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca through seven tableaus as he comes to terms with his increasing blindness and death. Middleton’s libretto leaves a degree of ambiguity in the distinction between Piero’s life and that of Jesus Christ. Piero’s cycle of frescoes ‘The Legend of the True Cross’ are connected to five of the seven movements, and references to his life are scattered across the score and libretto. Dove’s style is accessible to all: his open harmonic language simultaneously highlights the poignancy of the subject matter while maintaining an optimistic outlook.

The programme labelled the evening as a ‘concert performance’, but a certain amount of movement was incorporated into the staging. Particularly interesting was the use of different sopranos to represent the angel figures which appear in each scene: this was a brilliant opportunity to showcase the young talent. Anita Klein’s backdrop to the evening was particularly striking: a bright green painting of the angels, each toting a musical instrument. This was the most elaborate element of the set: the sole prop was a wooden wheelchair with a blanket strewn over. The sensitivity of harpist Valeria Kurbatova was particularly notable, helping to create an introspective mode of performance. All of the singers brought a different character to the work, and Tai Oney (as Piero) captured the ambiguity of his role well.

It was interesting to see the simplicity with which the opera was staged. I put on Seven Angels in University College Chapel, Oxford, incorporating movement for the singers. It is this openness which makes the work so accessible: the surface has barely been scratched. Dove’s score and Middleton’s libretto leave open lots of possibilities: now the performers need to take advantage of them.

Review: Brahms and Berio at the Holywell Music Room

The Holywell Music Room was lit by just a few standing lamps for the evening’s concert, intensifying the venue’s characteristic intimacy. Bringing together Brahms and Berio, viola and clarinet, the performance only drew a small audience (most likely due to the combination of Freshers’ week and a 6pm start). This was not necessarily a bad thing, as it was this atmosphere which allowed the artists to truly connect with the audience.

The concert opened with Stephen Upshaw’s performance of Brahms’ F minor Sonata. The up-and-coming viola player certainly has an impressive resume, and produced a beautiful sound. The crucial thing about Brahms’ sonatas is that the instruments are equal partners in dialogue, but certain moments in this performance appeared to be more like a conflict between Upshaw and the pianist (Kate Whitley). There were not only issues of balance (with some of Upshaw’s playing inaudible) but of tempo too: the music felt rushed, and would have benefited from a touch more rubato.

The Berio Sequenza which followed brought clarinettist Mark Simpson to the stage. Since graduating with a degree in Music from St Catherine’s College, Simpson has gone on to considerable success. Not only did his composition sparks open the Last Night of the Proms in September, but his recent appointment as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist recognises his considerable skill as a player. His technical skill was certainly tested by Berio’s Sequenza IXa for clarinet, famed for its difficulty and use of extended performance techniques. From shadowy fluttering to cacophonous shrieks, Simpson carried the piece off with panache. His movements lent the performance a theatrical element which suited its extroverted nature. Perhaps most impressive of all was the constancy of tone throughout the clarinet’s wide range, underpinning the variety of colours and dynamics with a stable grounding.

Berio’s Sequenza VI for viola saw Upshaw return to the stage after a brief interval. This Sequenza had Upshaw sawing furiously at the instrument’s strings in a frenzy of multi-stops. It was in the Berio that Upshaw came into his own, his love for contemporary music shining through. During a particularly voracious passage, a string snapped; undeterred, Upshaw dashed off stage to replace it before calmly resuming his performance. The drama inherent to the piece was brought in spades, and this unrelenting dose of aggression was enthusiastically received.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the concert was Mark Simpson’s performance of Brahms’ Eb Sonata. Although I have heard many recordings of the work, his interpretation was just sublime. His intensity of sound placed him as equal partner to Whitley, and there was a dynamic tension between the two which ignited the performance. This was full-blooded Brahms which still retained a dignity and grandeur, and it seemed to be over all too soon.

I have attended many concerts in my time at Oxford so far, but this performance definitely ranks amongst the best. It has set a high bar for not just the term, but also the year ahead.

Concert Review: Dusk to Dawn at the Oxford Chamber Music Festival

An introductory reading by local writer Philip Pullman was an appropriate introduction to the “Dusk to Dawn” concert, one of the last in this year’s Oxford Chamber Music Festival (themed “Fairytales and Fantasy”). The collision of a light-hearted surface with darker undertones was not just in Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm stories, but pervaded Artistic Director Priya Mitchell’s programming. An eclectic combination ranging from Beethoven to Tabakova, the evening featured a cluster of talented performers from across Europe. As the lights dimmed, the opening artist Natacha Kudritskaya held the audience in a prolonged silence before embarking upon Ravel’s virtuoso suite.

Read my full review here.