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.

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

‘By Special Arrangement’
Saturday January 9th, 2016,
Cadogan Hall, Sloane Square

To Cadogan Hall on Saturday night for my first concert of 2016, this time not piano music but an evening in the company of The Pink Singers. Long before Gareth Malone first encouraged people to sing together, The Pink Singers were founded in 1983, and are the longest running LGBT choir in Europe. The Pink Singers are London’s LGBT community choir, comprising over 80 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people from a diverse range of backgrounds united by a passion for singing. In addition to performing two London concerts each year, The Pink Singers also sing with other choirs in the UK and around the world and participate in Gay pride and other festivals for LGBT people. The choir is directed by Murray Hipkin, who also serves on the musical staff of English National Opera.

There was a great atmosphere in the bar before the concert, much noisy greetings of friends, conversations and laughter heralding an evening of fine singing, entertainment, and a wonderful, all-consuming sense of a shared experience.

The Pink Singers are most definitely performers as well as singers: this was clear from their opening number, ‘Mr Blue Sky’ by ELO, which included a spoof newscast, dancing, mime and animated singing. Later in the evening, a performance of ‘Masculine Women Feminine Men’ (Leslie & Monaco, arr. Murray Hipkin) came complete with a dash of Busby Berkeley-style dancing.

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A clue to the theme of the evening was in the title of the concert – By Special Arrangement. The programme showcased not only the diversity of music for SATB voices, but also the special talents of arrangers within The Pink Singers. There were particularly tender and poignant renditions of ‘This Woman’s Work’ by Kate Bush (arr. Andy Mitchinson) and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ (arr. Chris Chambers), a song which always reduces me to tears. There was also an extraordinarily powerful setting of text from Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, ‘The Zanies of Sorrow’ by Matthew King, originally commissioned for the North London Chorus. There was also a charming, reflective setting of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W B Yeats by Fran George (who happens to be a piano teaching friend and colleague of mine).

The variety of music, from showstoppers from opposing ends of the world of music (‘Relax’ meets ‘Zadok the Priest’!) to tender intimate ballads such as Bob Dylan’s ‘Make You Feel My Love’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ demonstrated The Pink Singers’ ability to switch effortlessly between myriad soundworlds, genres and moods. And get this, the choir is largely composed of non-professional musicians (I hesitate to use the word “amateur” because to all intents and purposes these singers are totally professional, in both their sound, precise timing and slick, seamless presentation).

But there’s more….. In addition to the main choir, The Pink Singers has also spawned number of smaller ensembles , two of which had guest spots in the concert. The Barberfellas are a close harmony group – with a twist (they wear tight shorts and high heels!). Their set was witty and naughty, but also sensitive and tender, as evidenced by a lovely rendition of M.L.K. by U2 in an arrangement by Bob Chilcott. We also enjoyed a set by Gin and Harmonics, an all-female close harmony group whose repertoire included a lovely setting of Sea Fever by John Masefield (music by Kate Nicholroy, a member of the ensemble) and Biebl’s Ave Maria.

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The Barberfellas

 

Gin and Harmonics perform ‘Mad World’

It was a splendid start to my concert-going year, and the evident enjoyment of all the singers and the audience combined to create an evening that was uplifting, joyous, tender, and poignant and, above all, a celebration of music and community.

The next Pink Singers concert is at Cadogan Hall on 4th June 2016.

The Pink Singers

The Barberfellas

Gin and Harmonics