Review: Oxford University Sinfonietta perform Mozart, Pärt, Ligeti and Prokofiev

The Oxford University Sinfonietta made their name performing programmes which mix music from the early classical period with more contemporary works. Last night’s programme was no different: the warm D major of Mozart’s ‘Paris’ Symphony was followed by the harsh dissonance of Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 1, with some Ligeti and Prokofiev topping off the programme. It was in the contemporary repertoire that the ensemble (conducted by Ed Whitehead) would prove to be most comfortable.

Mozart’s ‘Paris’ Symphony opened the programme. The small size of the string section (including just 2 cellos and 1 double bass) proved a disadvantage: not only was there a lack of body at several points, but this led to an imbalance between the string and wind sections. The string playing was fairly ragged in several passages, with intonation and synchronisation slightly approximate in the scales in 3rds between first and second violins. Flautist Charles Troup’s playing in the second movement was of note, his mellifluous tone elevating the carefully shaped phrases. Although I felt that this movement lacked the larger-scale view which was required, Ed Whitehead’s interpretation was generally assured. The finale’s lightning speed captured the effervescent feel of Mozart’s writing (although this illuminated a few more technical flaws).

Arvo Pärt’s Symphony No. 1 was next on the programme, its unapologetic textures suiting the clarity of the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building. The opening brass dissonance was tight and confident, setting the bar high for a truly brilliant performance. Woodwind chatter was metronomic and strings gave the polyphonic writing a searing intensity. Whitehead’s precise baton set an unrelenting pace over which the counterpoint would unfold, handling the changes of time in the second movement decisively. Maintaining their ferociousness until the very end, the Sinfonietta’s account was truly gripping, and surely the highlight of the programme.

Ligeti’s Nouvelles Aventures opened the second half. Written for 3 singers and 7 instruments, the piece stretches the players to the max. The vocalists generally displayed good commitment, investing themselves in the theatrical elements. Ed Whitehead’s clarity of beat proved indispensable once again amidst the cacophony of nonsensical whoops and mutterings. The combination of performers was shuffled for Ramifications: 12 string players were divided into two groups, each tuned a quarter-tone apart. The hypnotic rhythms were gradually transfigured from the extraterrestrial muted sound of the start to a seething mass of criss-crossing lines. The effect
was immersive, and the performance captured the increasing urgency of the dense texture well.

The last piece on the programme was Prokofiev’s neo-classical Symphony No. 1. This 1917 work is an exercise in the style of Haydn, albeit one injected with cheeky asides, erratic rhythms and unexpected harmonic diversions. The Sinfonietta’s playing was incisive, bringing out Prokofiev’s playful approach to the conventions of Haydn’s style. This was the piece where Ed Whitehead seemed most at home, setting a vivacious speed which elucidated the elements of dance from the first movement. However, the tempo chosen for the fourth movement was a touch too fast and teetered on the edge of control. Luckily, the Sinfonietta clung on by their finger-tips, and the result was a visceral and exciting whirlwind of a finale.

Despite some under-rehearsed Mozart, the rest of the programme showed the Oxford University Sinfonietta to be an ensemble capable of great things. A formidable programme of contemporary music was tackled with great verve, and they rose admirably to the challenge.

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A Choral Christmas: A Review of ‘Advent at Merton’

With their debut CD last year garnering them widespread critical praise, Oxford’s most recent choral foundation has a lot riding on their shoulders. The Choir of Merton College proves that this reputation is deserved with a range of repertoire spanning between the fourteenth-century and some of today’s leading composers.

View the full review here.

Spanish Seduction: Bizet’s Carmen at ENO

On Wednesday night I was at the opening of ENO’s Carmen. The aggression which was to run through the rest of the opera was unleashed from the opening scene of Calixto Bieito’s production. This was an interpretation which brought the misogynist aspects of Carmen directly to the forefront. Testosterone flared amongst the military men as they leered over the women from the cigar factory, at times making for uncomfortable viewing. This certainly made a refreshing change from the romantic gloss of many productions, and it made Carmen’s resolution at the opera’s end all the more poignant.

Bieito’s setting relies upon minimal staging, with a few battered cars forming the main focus for the two central acts (although most memorable is the Osborne bull silhouette which is toppled at the start of the final act). Drugs and debauchery were the order of the day, with sexual favours behind a car and characters freely removing clothes. The orchestral playing felt somewhat separated from this grittiness of the stage for much of the opera. Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth picked lively tempi, but the orchestral brightness failed to connect with the happenings on stage.

Ruxanda Donose’s Carmen was wonderfully creamy-voiced, although she appeared slightly inhibited in her seduction. However, Donose lent the role a dignity which saw Carmen’s life ending on her own terms. Adam Diegel’s Don José didn’t project as well as needed, although the gradual emergence of his obsessive tendencies was very effective. Leigh Melrose certainly possessed the necessary swagger for Escamillo, and it was a shame he wasn’t on stage for longer.It was Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Micaëla who really brought the house down, her Act 3 aria “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” inviting an enthusiastic response from the audience.

Although their singing was strong, some of the chorus scenes felt slightly directionless. At several points the factory workers and children were reduced to a line at the edge of the stage. This seemed a shame, given how carefully conceived the rest of the direction was.

Despite a few minor flaws, ENO’s Carmen made for gripping viewing. Although a certain amount of cliché was incorporated (inevitable, given the popularity of the opera), Bieito’s gritty realism worked well. The orchestra’s slight disjunction from the overall tone was a shame, but with such talent on stage this was by no means a compromising factor.

In conversation: Giles Underwood

“What’s missing from our performance is physicality,” says Giles Underwood. Although the “nuts and bolts” of a performance must be there, it is the communicative aspect which is the most important.

After all, Giles certainly has the experience to make such a statement. Not only has he sung with a range of ensembles (from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra), but he has sung a range of operatic roles and performs regularly in recital. Alongside his international career as a bass-baritone, Giles is in great demand as a vocal teacher (with students at both Oxford and Cambridge).

Giles’ introduction to singing was a chance one. “I think I was being troublesome at school, and my Mum saw an advert in the parish magazine for chorister positions in Westminster Abbey, and it all started from there.” Although his experience as a chorister provided a useful grounding for his later career, Giles moved away from singing after his voice broke. “I felt like I’d had enough,” he admits. “It wasn’t until I was about 17 that I wanted to know what voice I had.” It was his experience of an Eton Choral Course which really cemented his passion for singing, prompting him to apply for a choral scholarship at Magdalen College, Oxford.

I ask Giles about his experience of Oxford’s music scene. “The Magdalen choral scholarship was pretty full-time. I did a few gala operas and things – we did a production of The Beggar’s Opera, which was one of my first experiences. I did quite a lot of extra-curricular stuff. I ran two groups – one of them was secular part-songs, and the other I roped friends in to sing some outrageous stuff!” It was only halfway through his time at Oxford that Giles decided to push his singing even further. “I’d been having lessons during my time at Magdalen and it went from there. I started doing stuff for New Chamber Opera as well.” The link with New Chamber Opera is one which has prevailed to this day: “The last few years I’ve been doing a couple of their summer shows – last year they did Salieri’s Falstaff.” Although he admits that it’s not on the same level as Mozart, “there are some genuinely funny moments and some genuinely beautiful moments in there. But there are too many arias, and some rather overstay their welcome!”

Another important experience was a performance of Puccini’s La bohème while at school. “They got professionals in to sing the big roles, and I sang Colline – the bass role. I thought, “This is amazing! Why haven’t I come across this before?” I think that’s what made me do more with my singing. I’m sure I sang it terribly, but I have very fond memories of it.”

Alongside Puccini, Giles names Mozart and Britten as the opera composers who he feels the most connection with. After leaving Magdalen, he took postgraduate and opera courses at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, studying with Susan McCulloch and winning prizes for English and Contemporary Song. While at Guildhall, he was given the opportunity to sing the roles of Count Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Tarquinius in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. “They were both operas that I knew really well, and the opportunity to sing major roles was fantastic. Quite often you find that music colleges avoid mainstream operas because they don’t want to be unfavourably compared with singers at the top of their game.”

Giles has been an enthusiastic exponent of contemporary music for some time, although part of the course while at Guildhall was of particular interest. “I did a course called Creative Voices, which was run by Sarah Walker. It paired few singers from the postgraduate course with a few postgraduate composers. It was a really good collaborative thing, and a few of the composers I worked with on that course are now doing rather well. It was nice to get a different view of how the music was put together.”

I ask him how audiences have reacted to contemporary music which he has performed. “It really does depend on the music.” He quotes James MacMillan’s one-act opera Parthenogenesis as an example. Although he thinks that it is brilliant, he admits that it is not the easiest piece to listen to. “I think that’s the problem with contemporary music– if it’s really cutting edge, the first time audiences listen might well be the only time. If you don’t grab them, it’s hard for them to understand.” Giles suggests that many contemporary works need repeated listening in order to be understood. “Some operas you listen to and think “It looks great, it sounds amazing, but I don’t get it.” And then halfway through the second half it clicks and you wish you could listen to Act 1 again!”

A particularly moving experience was when Giles performed Adam Gorb’s cantata Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank wall (which incorporates words by John McCarthy about his kidnapping). “I found it difficult to make music out of it. It wasn’t until the first performance when John McCarthy was three rows in front of me and I was singing it to him that I really understood.” Giles suggests that many performers are too concerned with perfecting the notes that they neglect the expressive aspect of music. “To worry about the nuts and bolts you need to be making music – imparting information and communicating with your audience. If you never get past the nuts and bolts stage, you’ve failed at your mission.”

Many rehearsals are rushed due to the economic system which underpins music. “Partly that’s a logistical thing – you can’t pay singers to be in a room if you haven’t got that money, and there’s just about time to get the notes right. There are some groups who barely do that.” He doesn’t view this as a satisfying system. “I don’t think you can realistically put together something on a three-hour rehearsal, and I’m speaking as someone who’s done that for my whole career.”

This is especially the case in the recording process. Giles argues that the best recordings are live ones. “All you have to do is look at the live opera recordings. They might not have all the right notes, but there’s a sense of direction to the music. The recording industry is just concerned with getting things right. The attention to details and perfectionism has taken a lot out of the music. I like accuracy, but I prefer a sense of communication over note perfection.”

This changes the subject to that of opera. Over the course of his career, Giles has performed in a wide range of operas (from Berlioz to Purcell). “One of the most interesting productions I’ve been in was a contemporary opera where there was a stage-on-a-stage, so we could dissemble it and rearrange it however we wanted it to go. Just before the first show, the designer decided to polish this mirror-like surface. It was like an ice rink! How we didn’t fall off, I have no idea!”

When I met Giles (through a choral masterclass), he named African music as a crucial influence upon his singing. He tells me about the collaboration between I Fagiolini and the SDASA Chorale (from Soweto), enthusing “the way of singing in Africa is so visceral. My idea of what music is for changed because of that.” It is this physical aspect of singing which Giles sees as absent from much performance. “Most of the music we’re involved in is too cerebral. It’s a rush to get the notes right, and that is your function. But it should be about more than that, making the right sound. It’s rare that you get time in rehearsal to explore the physical side to the sound.”

Another project with I Fagiolini which allowed Giles to explore the physical side to the sound was their staged version of Monteverdi’s Madrigals (perhaps most famous in the form of the 2007 film The Full Monteverdi). “It was life-changing for all of us involved – we did 88 performances over a couple of years. It made you plumb the depths of your own emotional experiences. That was a real eye-opener about the amount of emotional involvement you need to put in to singing.”

It is the communicative power of music which Giles sees as its most important asset. It is a value which has clearly worked for him. He leaves me with the idea of each singer taking responsibility for this communication: “then you stand a chance of having something which lifts the music slightly further off the page”.

Phantasm perform Gibbons, Lawes and Jenkins in Magdalen College Chapel

The vast space of Magdalen College Chapel was lit by just a few lamps for Phantasm’s concert on Friday night, casting a soft glow upon the jewelled colours of the stained glass. A circle of chairs in the middle of the aisle suggested an element of informality, but the audience were rapt in their attention throughout the performance. They waited patiently during the breaks for the players to tune their viols. Although the group of listeners may have been relatively small, they were certainly appreciative of the musical riches which Phantasm offered.

The award-winning viol consort collaborated with organist Daniel Hyde to offer a programme of Gibbons, Lawes and Jenkins. From the very start of Gibbons’ Fantasies of Three Parts it was clear that the performance would be an outstanding one. The players imbued the contrapuntal dialogue with an expressive quality, their carefully shaped entries maintaining a sense of line and direction. This sensitivity still left room for the rhythmic vitality of the dance-like passages. The interaction of the players was intuitive, with Markku Luolajan-Mikkola adjusting the tone of his bass viol according to whether his role was harmonic or more directly dialogic.

The trio’s sound was homogenous and their tuning impeccable, and this continued with the addition of the other three viols for Gibbons’ Fantasias a 6. The ensemble maintained a bright tone and deftly weaved the imitative threads around each other. The Fantasias No. 3 and 1 saw the players bring out the wistfulness inherent in Gibbons’ music, the yearning appoggiaturas given poignancy by the ensemble’s sonorous tone.

Lawes’ Consort Sett VII a6 in C saw Daniel Hyde join the ensemble on portable organ. His accompaniment was flexible to the subtleties of Phantasm’s interpretation and blended well with the group. The sudden changes of mood were captured well, with subtle use of rubato working to great effect. The Fantazy movements were crisply articulated, each player jauntily declaiming their entry and driving the music forwards. After the interval, Lawes’ Consort Sett X a6 in c introduced a more solemn tone. Even the passages at a brisk tempo carried a sense of spaciousness and a legato sound. It was such careful balance which lent the performance its je ne sais quoi, allowing the players to bring out the many different facets of the music.

The fragility of English consort composer John Jenkins’ Pavan a 4 invited an especially lyrical style from Phantasm, resulting in a beautifully introverted feeling. The restraint of vibrato throughout the concert thus far meant its use was all the more moving. The two Fantasy movements which followed contrasted greatly, with imitative contrapuntal lines flying around the group. The Bell Pavan was given a sumptuous full sound, with the ensemble infusing the anguished chromaticism and suspensions with pathos.

Phantasm returned to Gibbons for the final work of the programme, Go from my Window a6. If Jenkins gave a taster of the virtuosity of the ensemble, the Gibbons truly allowed the players to unleash their capabilities. Even the fast and furious bass viol passagework was carefully phrased and brought off with a sense of lightness. The rhythmic play of Gibbons’ music was infectious in Phantasm’s performance, and the piece was a perfect conclusion for the evening.

The fresh perspective offered to Gibbons, Lawes and Jenkins proved beyond doubt why Phantasm are held in such high regard. The spaciousness of sound, rhythmic vitality and subtle nuance made this one a very special concert indeed.

Review: ‘This Christmas Night’ by Worcester College Chapel Mixed Choir

Oxford already offers rich pickings for choir connoisseurs.  With the Chapel Choirs of Merton and Queen’s joining the highly regarded trinity (Magdalen, New and Christ Church), the new recording from Worcester has some tough competition. This is a CD which proves that they can definitely hold their own.

Read my full review here.

An eclectic evening: a look at Oxford University Sinfonietta’s programme

With just a fortnight left of Oxford term, I’ve been looking through the concerts yet to come. One programme which I’m particularly looking forward to is that of the Oxford University Sinfonietta (29th November, Jacqueline Du Pré Music Building). This chamber orchestra typically blends music from the early classical period with more contemporary compositions, and this concert is no exception. Ranging from Mozart to Ligeti (with Prokofiev and Pärt for good measure), the eclectic programme promises an exciting evening.

Read the full article here.