PSM5: Camerata Nordica/Terje Tønnesen – Britten, Tippett & Walton

Camerata Nordica
This fifth and final Proms Saturday Matinee concluded the Saturday-afternoon Marking of Benjamins Britten’s centenary year by placing him in the context of his British contemporaries with works by Tippett and Walton. Included was the premiere of Britten’s Elegy for Strings. It seemed appropriate that this piece new to us was performed by a group making its Proms debut. Camerata Nordica plays without conductor or with the use chairs (for the upper strings, anyway), adding visual drama to its performance.

Read my full review at The Classical Source.

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Exceptional Britten and Dvořák from Maxim Vengerov and the Oxford Philomusica

Just a few weeks after the announcement that Oxford would be hosting the UK’s first major Stradivari exhibition this June, Maxim Vengerov gave a phenomenal performance on one of the Italian craftsman’s instruments. Performing on the ex-Kreutzer instrument made in 1727, Vengerov’s performance with the Oxford Philomusica was unforgettable.

Read my full review at Bachtrack.

2013 Concert picks: January-June

2012 was a sterling year for concerts, and 2013 looks set to be even better. With the Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival dominating my diary and Britten looming large too, here is a selection of the unmissable events of the year.
Not a concert as such, but the live streaming from the Royal Opera House on 7th January promises to be a fascinating look into the day-to-day running of the company. Viewers will be able to tune into interviews, rehearsals and insights from performers and those on the creative team alike. Running from 10:30 am until 9 pm, the broadcast will offer a look into rehearsals from Verdi to Birtwistle, culminating with preparations for the evening’s performance of La bohème.
Witold Lutoslawski celebrates his centenary on 25th January. Fresh from the success of their ‘The Orchestra’ app for iPad, the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen bring the Polish composer’s Musique funèbre and Piano concerto to the Royal Festival Hall before a complete performance of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé on 30th January.
February begins in style with a virtuoso programme on 1st February at Oxford’s Holywell Music Room. Michael Finnissy’s new work ‘Âwâz-e Niyâz’ is performed by the man himself with Christopher Redgate on oboe and lupophone. Also featuring Pasculli, Beeethoven and Triebensee, it is worth arriving at 6:30 pm to hear Finnissy and Redgate’s pre-concert talk.
Another unmissable event is Imogen Cooper’s Schubert recital in St John’s Auditorium on 2nd February. Holding the post of Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Classical Music and Music Education, Cooper will perform the 4 Impromptus, Sonata in A minor, 11 Ecossaises and the Sonata in D major to a rapt audience.
I will hopefully be making the journey from Oxford to London multiple times during February as the Rest is Noise festival turns to Paris. 9th February not only marks the opening of ROH’s Eugene Onegin, but a performance of George Antheil’s eclectic Ballet mécanique by the Aurora Orchestra. 20th February brings some rare gems from Les Six: Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel arr. Marius Constant for 15 instruments, and Darius Milhaud’s Petite Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3.
The following night, the Royal Festival Hall plays host to twentieth-century music of an entirely different kind, as Unsuk Chin introduces John Zorn’s For Your Eyes Only and Angelus Novus will be performed by players from the Philharmonia under Matthew Coorey. To finish off the week, Andras Schiff and the OAE will be returning to Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre on Friday 22nd February with Mozart and Haydn.
If their performance in December is anything to go by, the Oxford Bach Choir’s performance of Britten’s War Requiem on 9th March will be gripping. A star-studded list of performers includes soprano Elizabeth Llewelyn, tenor James Oxley and bass Giles Underwood with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Choristers of Christ Church Cathedral under the baton of Nicholas Cleobury. The Oxford Town Hall will be in for a treat!
George Benjamin’s Written on Skin runs from 8th-22nd March in the Royal Opera House. Bleak yet gripping, it is the production which I am most eagerly anticipating. London sees the return of Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic to the Barbican Centre. I will be in the audience for the concert on 17th March (a programme of Debussy, Stravinsky and Vivier). Their trip to London will also see them perform Joseph Pereira, Unsuk Chin and John Adams on 14th March, and Adams’ The Other Gospel According to Mary (having received mixed reviews from its premiere performance).
Winner of the 2013 Grawemeyer Award, the Dutch composer Michael Van der Aa will be bringing his intriguingly titled ‘film-opera’ Sunken Garden to the Barbican from 12th April. Featuring a libretto from Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell and the first use of 3D in opera, it will be interesting to see how this multimedia production is received.
After garnering widespread critical praise with their first two CD releases, the Choir of Merton College perform a programme of Tallis, Parsons, Purcell, Tavener, Arvo Pärt and Poulenc on 3rd May. Oxford’s newest choral foundation is always a delight to watch, and a highlight promises to be a new commission by Ola Gjeilo for the Merton Choirbook (in anticipation of the college’s 750th celebrations in 2014).
I suspect that the rest of May will prove to be a write-off due to exams! However, I look forward to exploring the musical offerings in June, not least the UK premiere of Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream by WNO (from 6th June).
The rest of June is focused around Britten, with my highlights based in Aldeburgh. The Aldeburgh Festival (running from 7th-23rd June) promises to rise to the occasion, but it is surely Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh Beach (15th, 17th and 19th June) which will prove the event of the year.

Superlative Britten from Oxford

With his centenary year fast approaching, Saturday night’s concert was a celebration of all things Britten. The festivities have certainly begun in style in Oxford, with Nicholas Cleobury leading the Oxford Bach Choir, the English Chamber Orchestra and soprano Elizabeth Atherton in some truly outstanding music-making. Mixing works by Britten himself with those by composers who influenced him, the performances of the majority of the pieces were dynamic and committed, and certainly made for a memorable evening.

Read my full review at Bachtrack.

Music at the Maltings

I’ve just returned from watching my brother perform in a Suffolk Youth Music concert at Snape Maltings. Having visited the concert hall regularly since I first performed there at the age of 13, it holds not only a sentimental attraction but a musical one too. The hall’s excellent acoustic justifies its international reputation, and its position nestled amidst the reed beds lends it a character missing from the corporate designs of many cosmopolitan concert halls.

The scattering of buildings which makes up the artistic complex is situated next to the River Alde. From art galleries to food shops, the site has a rich cultural offering. On this sunny day, retro vans offered drinks and ice creams to the bustling site. A light breeze skimmed across the river while the reedbeds danced, and a few solitary birds made their way through the thick mud at the edge. Art installations are dispersed around the site, blurring the man-made and the natural. It is possible to lose yourself on long walks around the reed beds, and to find yourself completely alone.

Today, though, I have different plans. The menu at the Plough and Sail (a mere two minutes from the hall itself) is packed with fresh seasonal ingredients, and the wing of skate I choose is particularly fine. After a perusal of the deli, we head over to the main concert hall. I lose myself in the shop in the foyer, including special memorabilia to commemorate Britten’s upcoming anniversary. In the end, I come away with the New Aldeburgh Anthology, a collection of prose, poems and pictures.

Although the site offers opportunities for culture of all sorts, it is the music which my family (and many others) have come for. The site’s isolation offers a special inspiration to musicians, hence its use for various schemes including Aldeburgh Young Musicians and the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. In these educational projects lies the continued presence of local hero Benjamin Britten. Britten moved to Snape in 1944, creating the first Aldeburgh Festival just four years later. Music here has since gone from strength to strength, from the addition of the Snape Proms in the 1980s to the development of malting and storage buildings to a collection of studios and offices. The small village has attracted leading musicians from across the world, and will be playing a large role in the celebration of its most famous son over the following 18 months.

The concert I saw was the culmination of a year’s work for the flagship ensembles of Suffolk Music. Featuring Strings, Wind Band and Orchestra, the youths presented an evening ranging from Coldplay to Shostakovich under the eaves of the former malthouse. Many of the 830 seats were taken, and the players earned enthusiastic applause. Over the course of the last year, the ensembles have taken part in intense courses and (for the Wind Band and Orchestra) concert tours in Europe. The process has been overseen by dedicated peripatetic staff, and some passages could certainly give professional ensembles a run for their money. Near the end of the concert, Philip Shaw (Head of the County Music Service) outlined the framework of provision for music education, which is funded by the DfE and distributed by Arts Council England. He talked of how such extra-curricular musical experiences as these ensembles have prompted musicians to study music academically to various levels. However, a justification of the power of these ensembles seemed unnecessary after two hours of playing full of passion and conviction. The grand finale of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture was the highlight of the evening for me. Players from the wind band joined the orchestra for the climactic fanfare of the piece, the 23 brass players blasting the roof off with Simon Bolivar-style gusto. Given Philip Shaw’s speech, the celebratory tone seemed perfect. The buzz after the concert as everyone dispersed into the balmy night showed that such music (and such a venue) is not being taken for granted.

Suffolk Sun: A day in Aldeburgh (Friday 24th August)

Pebbles crunch under my feet as I stroll along the shore. To my right, the bank of stones slopes towards a narrow band of sand over which waves lap. The sapphire mass of water is barely broken by waves, despite the light breeze. Ramshackle fishermen’s huts sit beside the promenade to my left, their wooden boats resting on a sheet of tarpaulin next to bundles of netting. The catches of the day are scrawled upon blackboards, the goods displayed between hills of ice. Freshly dressed crabs sit beside plump scallops and a selection of plaice, cod and whatever else the fishermen have caught. Lobsters observe the customers with curiosity from inside a glass tank by the wooden door, adjusting the positions of their bound claws with an air of confusion. Some huts have extended their business by offering to cook the food there and then, adding more competition to Aldeburgh’s eateries. Locals linger around the sheds, making conversation with their owners and eventually leaving with a bag of fish. Not that Aldeburgh was lacking in choice for a bite to eat. Alongside a selection of pubs, cafes and hotel restaurants (The Brudenell offering a delicious cream tea alongside a prime spot for people-watching), the fish and chip shops are particularly notable. The Aldeburgh Fish and Chip Shop and the Golden Galleon are twinned, both frequent recipients of national awards for fish and chips. Although I have tried both in the past, it is the Golden Galleon which I opt for today. I sit on the promenade wall to look over the sea. The piece of cod steams from within the paper wrapping, and crumbles into soft flakes as I eat. The firm chips aren’t greasy in the slightest, and the helping is generous.

After eating my fill, I stagger into town. The High Street sits local bakeries and independent shops beside such names as Jack Wills and Crew Clothing (surprisingly for this small town). I pass the offices of Aldeburgh Music, an organisation founded by local composer Benjamin Britten. The concert hall in nearby Snape Maltings sits beside swaying reed beds, attracting musical talent from across the globe. Passing out of the North end of the High Street, I emerge besides the boating lake. A quaint ice cream hut sits beside it, queue snaking around the benches. The Grade I Moot Hall (built in 1520) proudly dominates the scene, its chimneys poking up into the breeze. The Hall is referenced in Britten’s 1945 opera, Peter Grimes. The plot revolves around an Aldeburgh fisherman who is persecuted by the conservative coastal community. Although the sun is out today, any clouds cast a more forbidding grey tint upon the sea. The danger of storm and sea which has caused tragedy to these coastal communities is reflected in the presence of the lifeboat station on the seafront. Although visitors are welcomed in, the displays tell of the vital role which the boats have played in disasters over many years.
Continuing further north along the promenade, a large steel sculpture stands resolute in the middle of the beach. The Scallop has been the centre of controversy since it was put in place in November 2003, with many criticising its perversion of the natural beauty. Made by local artist Maggi Hambling and dedicated to Britten, a quote from Peter Grimes traces the edge of the upright shell: ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’.
I sit down upon the beach and look around. Groups of teenagers laze upon blankets and chat, their tanned skin poking out from under pastel tops and Jack Wills shorts. Middle-aged couples walk dogs along the promenade, and children jump the waves which lap gently upon the shore. Seagulls circle overhead, occasionally dipping down to retrieve the odd discarded chip. Yachts bob their way back to the harbour, with larger cargo ships making their way along the horizon down the coast to Felixstowe. However much the town might have changed, the sea is still central to life here. And so I sit, and watch the waves.

The Venezuelans Triumph Again (Monday 25th June)

The heavyweight programme of Beethoven and Britten for the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Saturday 23rd June once again affirmed the orchestra’s successful transition to the professional sphere. Gone were the party-pieces and coloured jackets of yesteryear, but the works aptly captured the positive mind-set of the SBSO. The flagship ensemble of the Venezuelan music education system, many of the players took music as an opportunity for a new life away from the danger of the streets. With several past players having moved on to other professional orchestras, the technical finesse of individual players demanded by Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ seemed particularly appropriate. Meanwhile, the drama and heroism of both the Eroica and the ‘Egmont Overture’ encapsulated the triumphant narrative encapsulated by the SBSO story.
Following a project with the ‘Big Noise’ scheme in Stirling (based on El Sistema), the concert was part of a weekend where the Venezuelans took over the Southbank Centre with family-orientated events and free workshops. The passion of the players shone through in the sheer exuberance of the concert. Each live performance by the SBSO is imbued with a rare urgency and tension: from the blistering intensity of the ‘Egmont’ string passages to the delicate woodwind passagework of the Britten, each musical moment was treated as if it could be the players’ last. Particularly notable was the reintroduction of the theme at the end of the sparkling fugal section in the Britten, handled by Dudamel with particular sensitivity to breath-taking effect. Although previous CD releases have met negative reviews, it is the buzzing atmosphere of a concert which truly encapsulates the spirit of the SBSO.
Gustavo Dudamel’s background in El Sistema means that his role is extended beyond that of maestro to honorary orchestra member. Despite his superstar status (exemplified by the hysteria surrounding his opening concert with the LA Philharmonic), Dudamel’s modest acknowledgment of the rapturous applause after each piece saw him mixing within the orchestra. The transference of the praise to the players exemplified the collective ethics of the orchestra. Perhaps as memorable as the concert itself was the lengthy silence following an encore of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ before the Royal Festival Hall erupted again. With their explosive performances still sending out shockwaves over the classical music scene, the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra is still proving why they have earned their reputation.