Saturday 9th April, Drayton Arms Theatre, London SW5

Opera in small spaces is not new, though I must admit I only discovered the Drayton Arms Theatre in South Kensington last winter when I attended Euphonia Opera Company’s splendid production of ‘Don Pasquale’. The space really is tiny – a handful of rows of banked benches, upholstered with old pairs of jeans, and an area not much bigger than an average-sized living room for the stage. Covent Garden it ain’t – and much the better for it, for Euphonia is a company of young professional singers who seem to actively relish the challenge of performing in spaces like Drayton Arms Theatre. Their pared-down productions, with the minimum of setting and costumes, and only a digital piano to provide the music, bring the opera right up close and personal.

Euphonia’s 2016 Spring season has included ‘La Traviata’ and a new production of ‘Iphigénie en Tauride’, Gluck’s powerful setting of Euripides’ play. I went with two opera-loving friends,  regulars at ROH and ENO and far more seasoned opera-goers than I. The narrative teeters on the brink of tragedy until almost the very end, when Iphigenia realises that the man held captive and about to be sacrificed is in fact her estranged brother Orestes. All’s well that ends well.

In the tiny space of Drayton Arms Theatre the action was intense and intimate. The singers are only a few feet away and when they sing, you can really feel the air crackle with the power and emotion of their voices. Without the support of elaborate sets and costumes, the action is far more immediate, pulling you into the heart of drama from the outset. When we went downstairs to the noisy pub for the interval, it felt as if we had been yanked out of an alternative reality, and as one of my friends remarked, you realise how removed you are from the action when sitting in the dress circle at the Coliseum. The entire cast sang with passion and commitment. Stand out performances, for me, were by Turiya Haudenhuyse in the title role, and tenor Joseph Doody, who played Pylades.

For those who are less familiar with opera, or who are reluctant to venture into ROH or the Coliseum, Euphonia’s pared down productions are a great introduction to the form. Productions are sung in their original language, with English surtitles, and you can nip down to the pub in the interval for a pint, and take your drink into the theatre.

This season’s productions have also included pre-performance interviews with legendary opera director John Copley CBE (Patron of The Drayton Arms Opera Series) and Euphonia President, the distinguished scientist, broadcaster and author, Professor Robert Winston.

Euphonia Opera Company

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First page of the autograph manuscript of St John Passion
Hearing J S Bach’s St John Passion in a Baroque church, as I did on Good Friday, connected this powerful and stirring work more closely to its original conception and performance. This was the annual Good Friday performance at St John’s Smith Square, a Baroque church in the heart of Westminster, given by Polyphony with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Stephen Layton.

Bach composed his Johannes Passion (St John Passion) in 1724, the composer’s first year as director of church music in Leipzig. The work received its first performance on 7 April 1724, at Good Friday Vespers, at the St Nicholas Church. The work is in two sections, intended to flank a sermon, and the text, which retells the events of Good Friday leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, death and deposition from the Cross, is drawn from chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel of John in the Luther Bible. To the modern audience, the text may seem arcane, and the unfolding narrative feels almost operatic, but to the congregation in Bach’s church, it would have been entirely familiar, as were the chorales which used well-known hymn tunes and texts. The work comprises choruses, chorales, arias and recitatives, with some highly effective and arresting “word painting” to reflect the meaning of certain words or passages.

In this performance, the role of St John the Evangelist was sung by Stuart Jackson whose tenor voice was eloquent, pure and mellifluous. Jackson was joined by Neal Davies, a sombre Christus, whose interplay with Roderick Williams’ Pilate was gripping and intense. Julia Doyle, Iestyn Davies, and Gwilym Bowen all responded with sensitivity to the spiritual substance of the text and the profound drama of the narrative. Julia Doyle’s soprano arias were especially luminous, while Iestyn Davies’ counter-tenor was clear and ethereal.

Polyphony sang with a full, rounded sound with impressively crisp diction which brought a dramatic immediacy to the text, for example in the chorus when Christ is brought before Pilate and the choir become the baying crowd. Stephen Layton drew a rich, colourful sound from the OAE with some particularly fine contributions from the woodwind and an elegant cello continuo. The pacing of the drama was also expertly judged by Layton with impactful and moving pauses and longer silences to allow the audience time to digest and reflect upon the highly charged and emotional narrative.

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Erik Satie – his music, his words, your ears

St Mary’s Barnes, London SW13

Alistair McGowan, words & piano

Daniel Turner, piano

Charlotte Page, soprano

Monday 14th March 2016

The comedian and impressionist Alistair McGowan has had a longtime fascination with the French composer Erik Satie 1866-1925). His first encounter with the eccentric composer’s music was at the age of 9 when he heard the beautiful, spare Gymnopédie No. 1. As an adult his fascination has led him to take up the piano again and to research Satie’s life in more detail, resulting in a play and documentary for radio, and now this words and music presentation, which had its first performance as part of the 2016 Barnes Music Festival. As it happens, McGowan is a resident of Barnes, and Satie’s parents married in the church where the performance took place.

McGowan’s narration was drawn from Satie’s own writings and musings (he was an avid letter writer, often writing letters to himself to remind him of important appointments), he wrote poetry and he drew witty and fantastical cartoons. He started composing in the 1890s and influenced composers such as Debussy and Ravel, Poulenc and Milhaud, and the Minimalists. His music defies categorisation – today we might describe his simple and often repetitive structures as “minimalist”, but descriptions such as “surrealist”, “symbolist” and “impressionist” are also appropriate.

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McGowan played Erik Satie, dressed in a grey suit with bowler hat and black neatly-furled umbrella (Satie is said to have owned around 100 such umbrellas, together with identical grey velvet suits). He was accompanied on the piano by Daniel Turner, though he also played some pieces, revealing himself to be a competent and expressive pianist (in the version of this show which McGowan will tour, ‘Erik Satie’s Faction’, he intends to play all the music himself). McGowan brought Satie to life, revealing the composer’s eccentricies and idiosyncrasies through a series of engaging and often highly entertaining readings. We learn that Satie only ate white food, that he kept to a strict regime regarding work, mealtimes, walks, that he had only one love affair in his life (with Suzanne Valadon, which left him devastated when it ended), that Debussy enjoyed “eggs and chops”, that he was both entirely sure of his own opinions, but also quite self-deprecating.

McGowan inhabits Satie’s persona with ease and delivers his narration with character and obvious regard and affection for the quirky composer. The narration is interspersed with extracts from Satie’s music (mostly on this occasion the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes) and my only frustration with this otherwise engaging and enjoyable show is that there wasn’t enough music. Pieces were begun, only to pause, mid-flow, and it would have been helpful to have had a playlist of works referenced in the programme. There were song extracts too, sung by McGowan’s wife, Charlotte Page, her voice floating ethereally around the roof of the church, suggesting the ghostly presence of Satie’s lover.

2016 marks the 150th anniversary of Satie’s birth and this show pays a warm, informative and entertaining tribute to the composer. McGowan will be touring with the show over the following months – do catch it if you can: it is well worth seeing.

More on Satie by Alistair McGowan

The Unsent Letters of Erik Satie

Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear

 

(photo of Alistair McGowan – BBC)

The acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes organised a mini-series of three concerts featuring music by his countrymen to coincide with an exhibition of the work of Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup (1880 – 1928), the first ever outside of Norway. It is a mark of how important this artist is in the cultural landscape of Norway that Andsnes came to the leafy suburbs of south-east London to present these concerts, which amply proved, in the words of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s director Ian Dejardin, “there is more to Norwegian music than Grieg”. In addition to exploring the music, visitors were invited to view the exhibition of Nikolai Astrup’s colourful and expressive paintings, prints and woodcuts.

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Nikolai Astrup Midsummer Eve Bonfire, SBF/DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen (photo: Stuart Leech)

Music was important to Astrup. He grew up in Jølster in the region of Sogn og Fjordane, a landscape of scattered farms around a scenic lake, surrounded by high mountains. With no towns or large hubs nearby, access to classical music was minimal and the music that was most accessible to Astrup as he was growing up was Norwegian folk music, in particular the type played on the Hardanger fiddle. Dancers and fiddle-players appear frequently in Astrup’s ‘Midsummer Bonfires’ paintings, and references to music and musicians feature in many of his other paintings, along with the landscape of the area of Norway he knew well. Thus the programmes for the three concerts at Dulwich Picture Gallery revolved around the theme of Norwegian folk music and its influence on composers who succeeded Grieg. The music was selected to reflect the themes and beauty of Astrup’s paintings.

Read my full review here

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(photo Susie Knoll)

The Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić first came to my attention, perhaps for the wrong reasons, when I read about his 2014 fracas with The Washington Post over the “right to be forgotten” in Google searches. He asked for a review from 2010, which he felt was unfair, to be removed. The incident sparked a lively debate across the networks about whether artists should respond to negative reviews or make such requests, and whether critics and reviewers need to be more careful about what they say. To me, it was a rather neat example of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”: I read about Lazić, my curiosity was piqued and I wanted to hear him live.

I missed his Queen Elizabeth Hall concert in winter 2014 so I was pleased to see him on the roster of the Wigmore Hall’s lunchtime concerts. And how glad I am that I decided to go to the concert, for he presented an imaginative programme of music: two greats of German music – Haydn and Schumann – were juxtaposed with dances by Shostakovich and Lazić himself, all of which revealed his strengths.

Anyone who makes me smile in Haydn gets my applause……

Read my full review

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(photo: Colin Way)

My concert-going year got off to a wonderful start with a solo performance by Pavel Kolesnikov, a sensitive young pianist who showcased Debussy’s evergreen and ever-popular Préludes Book 1, with L’isle joyeuse to round off a most satisfying and engaging lunchtime recital at London’s Wigmore Hall

Debussy’s Préludes are amongst his most popular repertoire for the piano, Book 1 being the most well-known. When Debussy first published these works, he headed them with a number only, their titles being hidden at the foot of each piece. The intention clearly was that their stories, pictures and moods were revealed gradually to pianist and listener. In Kolesnikov’s performance, there was a similar sense of the music unfolding before us, with new voices and inner lines of melody revealed gradually or unexpectedly.

Read my full review here