Review: Opera Holland Park’s Into the Light

I’ve watched Opera Holland Park’s latest social action doc Into the Light a few times over the past few week in production, and when it went live on YouTube today.

I hear there are future plans for its wider release. Good. Well deserved. Because OHP top dog Michael Volpe’s exploration of the impact of opera on army and navy veterans captured during this years season is a thing to behold.

Lovable contributors, heartbreaking real-life stories, jeopardy, pathos and redemption, all underpinned by the music of Tchaikovsky.

Crafted with an eye to the art form Volpe so evidently adores, it’s a must-see 30 mins heralding the impact opera has on the curious and open-minded. If you’re a living breathing human being who hasn’t already seen this then you must. Touching stories, unfussy photography, and effortless advocacy.

Every time I see it it makes me cry (a lot). In that way it has a much-needed grounding effect at a point in time when the world appears to have gone completely mad.

Watch it on YouTube before the masses pile in on it. If you don’t reach for a tissue in the first thirteen minutes then you’re a cold-hearted bastard.

Review: Der Freischütz conducted by Laurence Equilbey featuring Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Johanni van Oostrum, and Chiara Skerath

An inventive thought-provoking production with captivating contributions from Johanni van Oostrum, the Insula Orchestra, and one or two illusionists.

Terrific orchestral playing in a generous acoustic that supported the period instrument Insula Orchestra   in the production of lean string sounds, and evocative woodwind textures. Possibly the best live theatrical pit sound I’ve heard in a long time. Conductor Laurence Equilbey is a passionate and efficient director, combining a clear beat with a dynamic expressive range. Her energy and precision can be heard in a range of orchestral textures, and contributed to a number of electrifying moments on stage. 

Soprano Johanni van Oostrum shone the brightest in amongst an impressive cast with her Act III Scene 2 Cavatine Und ob die Wolke sie verhulle, sending chills up the spine with a rounded tone, silky smooth legatos and gossamer octave leaps. Hers combined with the voice of Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Max, and the sometimes Mary Poppins-esque characterisation of Annchen by Chiara Skerath made for an exquisite first act trio Wie? Was? Ersatzen that didn’t quite muster the effort from the audience with the response it deserved. 

I’ve read some dismissive reviews about the stage direction and set design, drawing attention to the lack of shotguns in an opera about a shooting contest as being a creative failure. 

Seeing this year old production at its Paris premiere sat in the intimate art deco interior of Theatre des Champs-Elysees there was a sense that with the horrific events of recent terrorist atrocities still surprisingly fresh in the mind, that not seeing actual guns was a sensitive creative response. Whether this was an active choice when the production opened last year I’m not entirely clear. What the absence of guns resulted in however was a creative opportunity for the production, demanding more engagement on the part of the audience. The intent appeared to trigger (forgive the pun) the audience to use their imagination more, something that increased engagement. 

An array of illusions was deployed which met this dual aim of focusing audience attention on the hows and the whys. Sometimes the depiction of the magic bullets – white balls juggled, thrown and sometimes swung – distracted the eye, especially during Agathe’s Und ob die Wolke. 

At other times, the time spent perfecting slow motion movement whether powered independently or with a seemingly invisible wires really paid off, heightening the drama considerably. The conclusion to the Wolf’s Glen scene was a case in point when characters strained for Samiel’s fire only to fall back in the melee. So too when Agathe gets hit with the seventh bullet in the last scene – all very Keanu Reeves. Additionally, never has watching one dancer moving in slow motion accompanied by a cello solo on one note ever created so much tension. 

The use of dark light projected onto the stage created threatening shadows in the penultimate scene of Act 1 almost worked, although at times the movements didn’t quite tally up with the available ‘black space’ on stage. 

The use of figures projected onto gauze to create storytelling vignettes maintaining engagement during sequences of dramatic exposition, adding depth both to the storytelling and the perceived depth of the stage – a complex effect demanding continuity between pre-recorded and live performances. The depiction of a silvery sea complete with dry ice (or was it a hologram – I’m not quite sure) was a thing of directorial and design beauty. 

The best should really be left until last. The chorus provided a remarkable sound – a rich, sonorous and burnished colour that compensated for the grey uniformity in their near-totalitarian costumes. One other commentator have dismissed the chorus’ supposed lack of movement, though the simplicity of the lines complemented the stark stage design. There were some elegant movements in the final scene when Hermit and chorus moved in a collective slow motion. 

A concert performance of the production is staged at the Barbican on 4 November 2019.

Cast: Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Max), Johanni van Oostrum (Agatha), Chiara Skerath (Annchen), Vladimir Baykov (Kaspar), Christian Immler (Hermit), Thorsten Gruumbel (Kuno), Daniel Schumtzhard (Ottakar), Anas Seguin (Kilian), Clement Dazin (Samiel)

Recommended recording London Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Chorus conducted by Colin Davis, featuring Christine Brewer, Sally Matthews and Simon O’Neil.

Reccomended Insula Orchestra recording Beethoven Emperor Concerto

Support the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Blog & Podcast on Patreon. Just $2 a month. Oh go on.


A night at the Gramophone Awards 2019

The Gramophone Awards are an industry event which celebrates that which has been released the year before and, in the process of handing out the gongs, brings industry figures together in a spangly affair.

But, I’ve always struggled a little to understand where the Gramophone Awards sit in my classical music world.

Beyond the simple explanation I’ve always felt the Gramophones (and the magazine come to that) was another world – the world of recordings, expert assessments, probably a little bit of flannel here and there and, perhaps most importantly, a world where I’d be forced to confront how little I know of the current classical music world.

Perhaps there was even a thought when watching the Gramophones from a distance via a live stream in years gone by that the ceremony and its contents and participants didn’t necessarily represent me or illustrate my connection with the art form. Gramophone magazine was something for the grown-ups not for the frivolous light-on-detail person like me.

What the narrative, contextualisation and representation of the artform actually looks like for me has come into sharper focus over the past six months or so.

But, after a disappointing Proms season, taking to time to gain a deeper understanding of where commercial radio sits in encouraging and catering for a new and varied audiences for classical music, and now the Gramophone Awards, I’m getting accustomed to a more nuanced take on the sector.

Last night’s awards ceremony at the De Vere Connaught Rooms shone new light on the classical music world. A human one.

Jakub Józef Orliński. Counter-tenor. Model. Break-dancer. Skipped dessert.

Seeing counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński (someone I had no previous knowledge of – the shame) take up his seat at our table prior to proceedings getting underway provided an opportunity to observe the remarkable energy he exudes. To then see him leap to the stage to sing in a fascinating yet matter-of-fact way meant the mesmerising tone he produced when he sang was electrifying. One minute Jakub was someone sat a table, the next his voice was creating a moment of stillness. The magic of live performance highlighted once again, so too the wonder the human voice can have on other human beings in an instant. I think I’m right in saying that he skipped dessert too. So a lot of self-control there, because I wolfed mine.

Pianist Denis Kozhukhin had a similar impact. His stint at the keyboard (Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words No.1 if I’ve recalled that correctly) silenced the inevitable awards dinner murmurs, glass chinks and fidgeting ice-cubes to create a similarly electrifying moment: busy-ness tackled head-on with innate and immediate musicianship.

The awards also have the added bonus of signposting a path for future exploration.

Knowing that someone who was previously sat across from me (who I also didn’t recognise – the shame) and who I’d assumed was a marketing type but who later turned out to be an award winner made him an interesting character to know more about. That he then sat down at the piano and commanded perfection to emerge from it was one thing. That when he spoke into the microphone when collecting his award with breathtaking understatement and unfussiness made him all the more fascinating.

Double award winner pianist Bertrand Chamonoy. Self-effacing to a fault. Adorable.

A lot of this of course is down to the event itself, an entertainment format which, it strikes me, is unique in the classical music world. There is no live cabaret style event where audience surrounds the stage and music is interspersed with speech. We might hear an idea of it on the radio, but we don’t see it on TV. Not anywhere. And that kind of experience would do much to reveal the magic of the art form – intimate music-making for a wider audience where the musicians natural personalities shine as brightly as the music they make just by virtue of speaking from the heart.

Guitarist Sean Shibe. Award winner for concept album SoftLoud. Loving the musicianship, Less keen on the ruff.

The discoveries I made I’m committing to future exploration (with one or two inclusions on the first Thoroughly Good Classical Music Playlist) include Bertrand Chamayou who appeared surprised and possibly even choked when his recording of Saint-Saens piano concertos was announced as both Concerto of the Year and Recording of the Year. Albums recorded by pianist Denis Kozhukin, Víkingur Ólafsson (adorably self-deprecating), and counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński.

And a wildcard too.

Cardoso’s Requiem on Hyperion which secured the Early Music Award. Partly because of the arresting image on the cover of the album, but also because it was the Early Music Award I accidentally kicked as I squeezed past table twelve in search of Catherine Bott. No damage was done, but the look on recipient Pedro Alvares Ribeiro’s was momentarily distressing. Profuse apologies offered and accepted, and I managed to find Catherine Bott too.

Review: Alexandra Dariescu and the Moscow Philharmonic play Rachmaninov Piano Concerto 2 and Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet

I was cutting things a little fine arriving in my seat panting and sweating just as the first chord of Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Romeo and Juliet sounded. By its inclusion – 5 minutes longer than the billed duration – my heart rate had reduced and my face and neck had dried off. Conductor Yuri Simonov took the work, even in its fast sections, at a surprisingly slow pace so that slow bits felt rather long and drawn out. Consequently, the the yearning and the emotional rushes never really felt convincing. It was as though Romeo’s heart wasn’t really in it and Juliet just felt relieved when it was all over.

Cadogan Hall’s acoustic is arguably the most demanding space to play in. There is nowhere to hide. Errors are then distracting. That’s not altogether a bad thing – it often means a deeper appreciation of what’s involved in a live performance is laid bare and it’s possible to notice when an ensemble has become used to the concert hall with its audience ensconced. So whilst there were some disappointing errors in intonation and ensemble in the woodwind in the first 10 minutes of the piece, that things were consolidated into a richer unified more passionate sound in the final section created something real with a story of eventual triumph. I just would have liked it a little faster.

My probable impatience with proceedings continued in the Rachmaninov. Dariescu is an assured performer – resilient, accommodating and strong. There’s lyricism in her right hand in all the places, and an enviable strength where the score demands. But there were times when it felt like Simonov was wanting to go at his pace and not hers. Some of the energy – that Hollywood verve and brio that I think exudes Rachmaninov’s movie-gold sound-world – petered out.

That said, there were some blissful gossamer string textures in the upper strings during the second movement. The Cadogan Hall acoustic also revealed some pleasing detail in the cello line and woodwind.

At times Simonov paid more attention to the strings than communicating with the soloist. In the second movement this projected Dariescu as a paradoxically lonely figure on stage. This emphasised the pathos of the second movement though I suspect that was by accident than design.

One of two most trusted pals

As it’s World Mental Health Day, it seemed timely to rewrite and update a blog I’ve published before. The bonus for those who read it before is that this time it’s all a lot more concise. And for those who are new to this blog, its a chance to understand why classical music remains an important part of my life.

Twenty-seven years ago or so I experienced an unexpected, deeply unsettling and confusing event which brought about the biggest personal challenge in my life.

It was only in 2016 when I saw a play at the Edinburgh Fringe about male rape that I began to understand that my experience, although not rape, was in the category of sexual assault. And, importantly, how such experiences are inherently confusing.

The details aren’t especially important to this post – I don’t really want to delve again. I’m not sure it necessarily helps anyone. I certainly don’t need to. They’re not especially unique or especially harrowing. What’s important here is the impact the experience had on my mental health and everything else.

It catapulted me into depression, and brought about a tiresome ‘identity crisis’. It ushered in drug-related and psychiatric therapies. It threatened my studies, my A-Levels, my university career. It also, I re-discovered a few weeks ago, prevented me from embarking on a teaching training course because the college where my place had been accepted had gained access to my psychiatric notes and deemed me a threat to children.

All this inevitably placed a variety of special relationships under immense pressure.

Everyone delivered. I remain indebted.

One particular moment in time was particularly dark. The first term of my third year at university. ‘Plans’ were made. The only thing which kept me from pursuing a self-inflicted fatal path were my commitments to practical music making with members of the university music society.

This critical moment in time took seven or eight weeks to reach something manageable. Weekly rehearsals of the university wind orchestra put me back on track, chasing the dark clouds away on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Fridays and Saturday were the precarious days. Sundays and Mondays were the days I was preparing for the next rehearsal. The end of term rehearsal sealed the deal and, thankfully, rock bottom was left far far behind.

There were wobbles that followed – some I’ve been reminded of recently flicking through some personal diaries a few weeks ago – but November 1993 and the role that classical music, participatory music making and my student friends combined all helped the subsequent turn-around.

The counter-experience – the ‘treatment’ if you’d prefer a slightly more blunt work – was a sense of routine, personal responsibility to others, and discipline. Conducting was something which helped me make a connection with my own personal values. Classical music saved me.

Since that time I’ve returned to classical music as a listener, a commentator, an arts manager, and a content producer. Sometimes classical music has provided an escape. At one time it provided me with inspiration for content. Now it is a world I feel most at home in. In recent years – especially since completing my coaching training – classical music has been a way for me to self-identify where my thoughts and feelings are at any given moment in time. Classical music as an emotional barometer. A trusted pal.

It could have easily been a different music genre. I know that others have derived the same benefits from rock, pop, punk, electronica, dance. But I remain indebted to a long-standing trusted pal – classical music – that continues to sustain my mental health, stimulate my thinking and, importantly, create lasting valued friendships.

I couldn’t do without it.

Inclusive, celebratory and touching

Coalesce around a subject or an event and, if there’s a sense of loss attached to it, the classical music community has the power to celebrate and advocate in an inclusive and respectful way.

Unlike a lot of what I saw on various digital platforms yesterday, I wasn’t especially touched, broken, devastated or bereft by the news of soprano Jessye Norman’s death.

I was aware of her career of course, but her work had passed me by. I know. That sounds incredible given the love and respect rightfully bestowed in her lifetime and in the event of her death by many. That lack of awareness is perhaps even embarrassing.

A defence.

My musical focus has always been on orchestral repertoire. I recognise I always have to make an active choice to listen to vocal repertoire (and always have done) in the same way I have to force myself to watch action movies with my husband. Odd, I know.

The news and people’s reactions to the 74 year old’s death highlighted one of my musical blind spots.

But what really cut through amid the outpouring of sorrow, regret, recollections and executive posturing, were messages that struck a good balance of paying homage but avoiding self-indulgence – messages that effectively introduced ‘newcomers’ to Norman’s landmark recordings.

The Ulster Orchestra’s tweet in particular hit the mark for me – a low-key acknolwedgement of the passing of a great singer, an implicit statement on how staff were reflecting on it, and a knowledge-driven signpost to a must-listen recording.

I listened to her recording Strauss’ Four Last Songs repeatedly all day as a result, marvelling at the texture and power of her voice. A new discovery made.

Similarly, @morrisonkenny’s recollection of the impact hearing the soprano’s voice for the first time had on him.

Kenny’s anecdote prompted me to reflect on the way in which I was introduced to classical music (through school), the limited repertoire we had on record at home (none), and how studies even at University were surprisingly limited. My listening development really kicked off when I started working in the arts. But still, my natural ‘home’ was orchestral music. I almost envied Kenny’s experience, now I come to think of it.

In this way (and the way that others shared their favourite recordings) the classical music world – the fans – unexpectedly felt inclusive. An unexpected event had triggered other people’s experiences which, once you filtered out some of the emotional hyperbole, actually achieved more in opening up to a newcomer a newcomer hitherto hidden away.

There is something rather touching about that. A beautiful kind of simplicity. A straightforward kind of advocacy that has opened a door to something new fronted by talent who in death provides a potent reminder of the political challenges we still face, long after she first triumphed in the industry.

All that from an unexpected death and a couple of tweets.

There is a blueprint to be drawn from this. Coalesce around a subject or an event and, if there’s a sense of loss attached to it, the classical music community has the power to celebrate and advocate in an inclusive and respectful way.

Support the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Blog & Podcast on Patreon. Just $2 a month. Oh go on.