I’ve always considered percussionists – the ones who are as at home with tuned or rhythm instruments – as the epitome of cool. The hipper cousin to the comparatively staid pianist. Percussionists can conjure up all manner of wizardry, bedazzle you with their technique. There’s more on display too – we can see the mechanics of sound project in a way that is hidden on the piano. Percussionists are cool. That’s all there is to say.
Joby Burgess consistently makes full use of this perception I articulate. At Peckham CLF a few years back and at Two Moors Festival last year, he surrounds himself with a great many contraptions, some recognisable others not, to create sound worlds that raise or lower the heart rate. In live performance he combines this with a low-key schoolboy charm that makes the sounds he creates all the more incredible. It’s a technique that hooks you in.
Percussionists Songbook carries across this instinct for entertainment into a commercially minded playlist of good vibe tracks that reward curiosity with aural treats. The sleeve notes draw on Joby’s love of pop. The genre is evident in some of the tracks – Yazz Ahmed’s Throw Your Pumpkin is good example, so too Gabriel Prokofiev’s Dr Calvin Remembered. Take Me Home uses echoes of an 80s pop melody, to build an uplifting mid-tempo anthem begging for a montage, jangly bells spilling over the edges.
Joby Burgess achieves something very special in A Percussionists Songbook, combining 20th century musical ideas, each unmistakably of their time, into a composite sound that sounds fresh. And like all well produced albums it’s one you’ll want to listen to from beginning to end.
James MacMillan’s captivating new violin concerto formed the centerpiece in a spectacular Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert at Usher Hall earlier this week, an event that demonstrated remarkable connection between conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and the SCO
Dedicated to Nicola Benedetti and in memory of Penderecki who died in 2021, MacMillan’s one movement violin concerto was a captivating piece of storytelling built upon a decisive musical idea. The work is rooted in a conventional tonal sound, with hints of Britten and Vaughan Williams in the mix.
The concerto is also packed full of tantalising textures. Slap bass, insistent brass fanfares, cascading woodwind sequences, and shimmering strings, all give a distinctive feel to the work. Everyone was kept busy which made for a highly entertaining work.
These elements and the work’s concision made it instantly appealing, no easy feat for the composer of a new work. It is rare I finish listening to a new work and instinctively want to hear it again. But there is something in MacMillan’s score than makes it so. I really hope we don’t have to wait too long before there’s another chance to hear it live.
The second half symphony – Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 – was not like anything I’ve heard before. Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev created a raw lean sound-world, almost like a period instrument performance of the work that gave the symphony a grittier edge – a world away from the lush heart-on-the-sleeve string sound normally associated with performances of music by Tchaikovsky. Emelyanychev works incredibly hard too, pointing, jabbing, and bouncing in order to maximise the efforts of the chamber orchestra in front of him. I was never distracted by him in the performance. Instead his focused energy and exuberance commanded the orchestra to play to the max.
There were a couple of moments when that exuberance maybe risk unseating things. The first example in the cellos at the opening of the second movement, where some of the detail at the end of the solo line was lost in the ensemble. And second in the breakneck third movement where events were so intense, so fast moving that the sense of jeopardy was a little too much. String players threw everything into the blistering third movement that arrived at its inevitable joyous conclusion. The temptation to applaud before the concluding fourth movement was too great for some (though it didn’t lessen the vibe). I sat in the stalls with my mouth wide open throughout.
The redefining of sound and textures, so too the immense speed and intensity in the first three movements, made more sense of the final concluding Adagio movement. To date I’d heard it only as strange ‘add-on’ in more conventional performances. Here the final movement made complete sense: one long ‘goodbye hug’ after the rip-roaring triumph that had gone before.
Special mentions must go to principal bass Nikita whose demonstrative playing is a joy to watch, the pianist in the opening Adams Chairman Dances whose wrists must have been in agony at the end of his 13-minute contribution, and (just because they so absolutely deserve to be showered with praise) the muscular corn-fed playing form the string section during the Tchaikovsky.
Also, let’s take a moment to celebrate the language used in the printed programme for the concert. Front and centre was the list of orchestral players all on one page under the title “Your Orchestra”. A powerful in-situ reminder to the audience of who they’re looking at on stage. Heart-string tugging stuff.
In ‘Ghost Variations’ Damian Lanigan has created something rare – an entertaining story in a classical music setting that doesn’t resort to the usual clichés and tropes. Lanigan’s writing sizzles, gently searing the edges of an industry rooted in convention.
Critically-acclaimed pianist Declan is set on a path back into professional concert-giving doing battle with both grief following the death of his wife, and his obsessive-compulsive tendencies at the keyboard.
There was a satisfying authenticity to Ghost Variations. Lanigan has really captured the reality of the classical music world, highlighting the quirks and inconsistencies, and in some cases the lack of professional competence. There’s an interesting comparison drawn between tribes – the classical music world seems completely closed off and protected to Declan’s new girlfriend. When she introduces him to her festival-going crowd so he feels equally out of place. In short, there are just as many annoying weirdos in the classical music audience as there are in the hippy-esque festival crowd. His characterisation of artist management, PRs and bloggers is, I really can’t deny it, absolutely spot on.
Lanigan’s writing sparkles. It has great rythmn and drive to it. Wit, dry humour and barbed humour are slipped in without fuss making it quick and easy to feel part of the world the author has created.
I also really enjoyed the way Lanigan describes the sound of a piece of music or instrument rather than the work itself. For example, describing the qualities of a piano as a similie. This simple method consistently applied provides access to a seemingly closed-off world. When the same is applied to individual works, suddenly the unfamiliar and impenetrable becomes a must-listen.
An experience that masked the power of the music that underpinned it
Husband of twenty-five years Simon introduced me to Lascia ch’io pianga (from Handel’s Rinaldo) soon after we met in late ’97.
Recreational drugs vibe to proceedings. It was an incredible listen.
And whilst I’m eager to make clear that the version we were listening to was as far from a landmark recording as is possible, what I reflect on now I listen back to it today is how the score rings out.
Handel’s writing is remarkable. Gut-wrenching. Heartstopping. Barbra did good. My memory of that listening experience was inevitably something electricfying.
Lascia ch’io pianga was the centre piece of BBC Proms at Printworks earlier today at the ENO/BBC collaboration led by counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo at the former print press hub in South East London.
I arrived characteristically late, the pathos ramped up high given how close I live to the venue: 3.4 miles.
The irony was how long it took to access the performance space. The journey took 35 minutes. The walk after I had parked the car, and passed various ticket and security checks, took around 8 minutes. For an event that seeks to make classical music more appealing to a younger audience it’s considerably more steps than I’m used to when visiting the Royal Albert Hall.
Inside, a sea of heads and bodies occupied the long narrow Printworks interior. Some sipped coffee, others swigged from slim cans of fizzy drink. Wisps of smoke illuminated by spotlights contributed to a sense of urgency. People looked meaningfully at the projections on the wall. Expectant looks were exchanged in places. This was epic theatre in the place where the Evening Standard used to be printed.
This wasn’t an event designed for me. There was an edge. Conflict. Tension. Everyone seemed to be younger than me. They appeared to have the inside track. I blundered around.
Not surprising perhaps. I’m 50 for goodness sake. I’m set in my ways. I love convention. The would-be iconoclasts will tell you that I’m part of the problem. I respond to the ‘feel’ of a bow on string. I’m boring.
And yet, despite the supposedly relaxed feel to moving around, ‘prommers’ were surprisingly sniffy about me shifting positions. In a lot of cases ‘excuse me’ didn’t really cut it. Some looked right through me. This was an event that had all the hallmarks of being ‘relaxed and groovy’. Mobile phones were lifted up whenever ‘interest’ passed by. This felt like an event designed for those who want to be seen at events.
Bizarrely enough, the same familiar preoccupations steadfastly remained. People resisted stepping aside to allow others to mingle. Whispering felt wrong. There was a sense we were all participating in someone’s else’s theatre. There were moments when it felt, I’m sorry to say this, all a bit odd.
What sealed the deal for me was Lascia ch’io pianga and seeing Anthony Roth Costanzo walking through the audience surrounded by his entourage of camera people and lighting drones. Make up, costume, and technical infrastructure made this all possible but unwittingly created something messianic.
Perhaps it was more radio than person. Inside the empty print works with projections on the wall cut with real-life art, dance and random soundscapes, this was an experience that masked the power of the music that underpinned it. Endless photo opportunities presented themselves. Lots of hipsters around me nodded sagely, appreciating the vibe not realising they were part of theatre.
For classical music iconoclasts the presence of such a big audience will be seen as proof the concept works. I remain dubious. I’m more interested in knowing just how many tickets were actually sold.
Because projectors, directors, designers, runners, live feeds, camera people, sound technicians, singers, and musicians cost a lot of money. This was undoubtedly an expensive production. If it didn’t cover its costs, did it communicate something distinctive? Did the audience necessarily care?
What really rang out was the magic of Handel’s melodies and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo’s voice. Which then makes me wonder, why don’t we just have him on a stage singing some Handel arias?
For the sake of balance and kindness, I’d recommend the radio broadcast. An excellent listening experience. But beware those who herald this in-person-event as the future of classical music. I’m not entirely convinced it is.
Sometimes it’s not really enough to say a performance was beautiful, stunning or ravishing. The adjective on its own doesn’t really do the job, even though sometimes I’m the first to admit that in my rush to get something written down the adjective is the only thing that comes to mind.
Sometimes there’s a need to explain why the adjective has been chosen. Case in point with the CBSO’s exquisite performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 last night at the BBC Proms, conducted by their soon to be Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Kazuki Yamada.
Why exquisite? Because it was one of those rare occasions when the music seemed to be allowed the space it needed to live and breathe. It was as though Yamada had found the moment to trigger the emotion and wasn’t in any hurry to leave anyone behind. None more so than in the third movement where the opening vulnerable clarinet solo was by the conclusion, transformed into something more healing, perhaps even defiant.
To be able to hold onto the moment for what felt like just the right amount of time before letting go and heading in a different direction made this an incredibly special listening experience. We were given the chance to be acquaint ourselves with what was going on. We didn’t linger but we weren’t railroaded either.
For a specific example go to 1 hour 43 minutes and 25 seconds (on BBC Sounds – Prom 14) and listen to the upper strings slow right down until the last note that resolves the chord. (The encore – Elgar’s Chanson De Nuit – illustrates the same technique to even greater effect. )
To see 90+ musicians directed by one conductor, all pull in one direction to create such a delectable moment in itself. To know that an audience experienced it with them – a musical in-breath and out-breath – reinforces why live performance is such a wondrous cultural encounter, and serves to illustrates what makes this art form so remarkable.
That was just being in the hall. The radio broadcast mix combined depth in the basses and detail in the upper strings and woodwind, exposing some of the detail in the work I’d not heard before. In the third movement in particular, the intertwining of solo melodic lines after the false ending was magical stuff.
With the caveat that it’s acknowledged that lists are stylistically passé, here’s a list of five reasons why the First Night of the Proms was a bit of a corker.
My assumption was that from our seat way back in the stalls I wasn’t going to hear much detail. I was wrong. I heard dry strings with distinct articulation. I heard rasping brass. I heard uniform beginnings and endings to phrases too. There was from beginning to end close attention to detail. And that was very very pleasing.
Also. How do two choruses stand and sit as one without making a noise?
Part of what made this a captivating performance was how the internal space added not only to the theatre of the Requiem but also gave the sound a three-dimensional depth. There were moments when it felt like we were in a massive cave. Then there were other moments when – say in the heart-stopping Agnus Dei led by Jennifer Johnston – when we were collectively experiencing something intensely personal. Commanding the space so that you can hold the space (with 6000 other people) is no mean feat.
Seeing Verdi’s Requiem fill the cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall did much to trigger past memories of similarly special potent memories. To experience this as the first night after a two year hiatus was uplifting.
Years ago I worked with an orchestra that participated in a commemoration of the Dresden bombings. Menuhin was conducting. My memory of this epic trip was of warmth, self-reflection and reconciliation. Last night there was a sense we were remembering those who weren’t present, those who hadn’t survived. And that seemed right and proper in the way that classical music events do best. Like Menuhin did in Dresden in 1995.
I left the Albert Hall feeling hopeful that things might improve. Don’t confuse this with me hoping for things turning out perfect, only that they might be better. That sense came about by experiencing a live performance in a special place with A Great Many Other People.
“We are deeply saddened by the news that Bramwell Tovey, Principal Conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, has died. Keen to popularise classical music, he was also a successful composer, winning both a Grammy and a Juno for his work. He led the BBC Concert Orchestra in a wealth of repertoire, with concerts at the BBC Proms and at London’s Southbank Centre. A true friend to the orchestra, his warmth and musicianship will be sadly missed.
Alan Davey, Controller BBC Radio 3, BBC Proms and BBC Orchestras and Choirs, said: “Bramwell Tovey was a gifted conductor who has been an integral part of the BBC Concert Orchestra since January 2018. His rapport with the orchestra has seen them flourish under his leadership and his joyful, human approach to music making. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this very difficult time.”
Bill Chandler, Director of BBC Concert Orchestra, said: “The BBC Concert Orchestra family is deeply saddened to lose Bramwell Tovey, our Principal Conductor for the past four years and dear friend for many more. He was a musicians’ conductor whose warmth, sense of humour and artistic leadership will be sorely missed.”
Performances during Bramwell Tovey’s tenure as Principal Conducer of the BBC Concert Orchestra include the Viennese Night at the 2020 BBC Proms and 20th Century British Film Music in 2021. At London’s Southbank Centre, where the orchestra is an Associate Orchestra, Tovey led them in Women’s Words and Voices as part of the BBC Four Inside Classical series and in world premieres by BBC CO Composer in Residence Dobrinka Tabakova including, Tectonic and Timber & Steel. He conducted the orchestra in inspiring family concerts, including in his hometown of Redbridge, London. They performed on many recordings for broadcast and CD.”
The Aldeburgh Festival got underway on Friday 3 June at Snape Maltings Concert Hall with the premiere of Tom Coult and Alice Birch’s opera ‘Violet’.
The apocalyptic tale documented the gradual disintegration of human life as a town and its inhabitants slowly come to realise how time is gradually, hour by hour, day by day, slipping away from them.
Set against an animated backdrop of constantly, the small company led by Anna Dennis in the title role. Richard Burkhard played Felix, Frances Gregory Laura, and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks The Clock Keeper.
Cohesive costume and set design by Cecile Tremolieres and Rosie Elnile gave the drama an Elizabethan feel with judicious use of trestle tables, ruffs, and tankards.
It was a compelling watch in part down to the manually updated display board documenting the days completed and hours lost, building tension and driving towards the world’s inevitable end. Composer Tom Coult’s characteristically inventive and descriptive score, played by the London Sinfonietta and conducted by Andrew Gourlay, sustained a sinister air throughout the 90-minute production.
In particular, the extensive use of pizzicato bass and low bass clarinet by Coult was a pleasing addition to an already rich and inventive score, reminiscent of Dudley Simpson’s resourceful use of chamber ensemble in his Doctor Who TV music scores in the mid-70s.
I was particularly impressed with the concision in Coult’s writing. Driven partly by the libretto, itself a reflection of the story, there is an immediacy to the composer’s musical ideas that drives focus in the audience. At the same time, the music maintains originality and integrity throughout. It is a remarkable balancing act that serves the storytelling.
Its most potent storytelling twist was the outlying conceit: we know what’s going to happen at the end of the story long before most of the characters do by virtue of the display visible to all from the stage. Yet, as the realisation grows amongst the inhabitants, so the sense that this story needs to slow down because of the characters impending demise. That same sense of tension is present in Tom Coult’s music.
Violet’s depression, driven by the regularity of the clock, slowly turns to hope for the central character as time is lost and society disintegrates. The conclusion is bleak and appropriately ambiguous, though the epilogue – a concluding animated sequence depicting computer-generated characters – jarred stylistically. I need to think further on what was being said in the epilogue.
What I liked most was the work’s efficiency (driven no doubt by the relentless loss of time the inhabitants of the town are experiencing themselves). It was that efficiency that helped make the production a compelling watch.
Anna Dennis possesses a magical voice – clear, distinct, rounded, and warm. She made light work of Coult many high notes and intricate melodic lines.
The co-production between Britten-Pears Arts and Music Theatre Wales was originally scheduled for premiere at the 2020 Aldeburgh Festival but was postponed due to the COVID pandemic.
‘Violet’ continues at the Aldeburgh Festival on 5th June (tickets from £10). There are performances at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff (8 June), Theatr Clwyd, Mold (19 June), Hackney Empire, London (23 June), and Buxton International Festival (18 July). It is a must-see.
Sheffield Chamber Music Festival isn’t daring to present classical music in a new way. It doesn’t need to. Sheffield started presenting things in a new way 38 years ago.
6 minute read
The Sheffield Chamber Music Festival got underway last weekend, opening at the city’s legendary Theatre Studio at the Crucible.
Produced by Sheffield’s Music in the Round, the 9 days of concerts curated by composer Helen Grime consist of a bold range of contemporary works paired with ever-popular core repertoire.
What was programmed in Sheffield Chamber Music Festival 2022?
Across the opening weekend, audiences were treated to pieces by Janacek, Martinu, Anna Meredith, John Cage, Helen Grime and Huw Watkins, alongside Dvorak, Chopin, Haydn and Beethoven.
In amongst the 20 date programme are visiting artists Ruby Hughes, Joseph Middleton, and guitarist Sean Shibe, the 15 remaining musical events the responsibility of a core group of players – Music in the Round’s Ensemble 360.
Such a schedule combined with a varied repertoire to prepare for – some of it familiar to each musician, the contemporary music potentially less so – seems like a big ask. That’s reflected in the care taken to protect each player’s free time in between performances by the management of the band. I get to speak to cellist Gemma for around 10 minutes before she needs to escape for her lunch in between performances of Izzy Gizmo – an endearing animated story for primary schoolers and below accompanied by live music scored for quintet and stripped back wind.
How does Sheffield Chamber Ensemble present its performances?
It’s partly perhaps the demanding schedule that drives the energy in performance. There is also a sense it’s Music in the Round and Ensemble 360’s trademark concert presentation style – live chamber music experienced by audience members sitting in a circle around the ensemble – that also ramps up the tension and delivers something either exhilarating or intensely intimate.
“We want you to feel what we’re feeling,” says Gemma when I ask her about the experience of having the audience sat so closely to and all around the players. “When you’re sitting in the round like that it’s as though the audience is with us [the players] rather than looking at us.” Sitting in the Crucible Studio Theatre with its raked seating and two tiers of additional seats above with stage lights illuminating the central performance areas, there are times when it feels to me as though we’re students observing a surgical operation.
What’s the atmosphere like in Ensemble 360’s concerts?
“Not painful, I hope?” asks Gemma. “When we arrive in the studio the atmosphere is electric, and that doesn’t usually happen until you’re surrounding us in that way. The feeling we get is that the audience is surrounding us. But sat in the round, we’re all facing each other. When you’re playing in something like a string quartet that is an incredibly intimate style of music-making.”
The intimacy is appealing. Being sat directly behind Gemma during the Dvorak Piano Quartet on the first night, I felt I was in amongst the action as though I was a player myself battling my way through the wild and furious writing the composer packs into so much of the work.
So too during the Sunrise concert at Samuel Worth Chapel. Here following an uncharacteristically early start for me, I get a sense of what being a string player creating chamber music must be like. And, at 5.15am it’s the first experience of that particular day. There’s good reason why wannabee writers are encouraged to auto-write minutes after they wake up – this is when the mind is at its most undistracted. The proximity of the instrumentalists combined with my sleep-deprived but otherwise attentive brain made this a deeply moving experience.
Music in the Round’s events that the audience’s and the attention to the sensory experience that it is the audience that is the priority. That’s different from merely putting on a programme and hoping people will come along. This is about crafting an experience for the audience to immerse themselves in.
Most obviously this is in the way the audience seems to wrap around the audience, but also in the confident programming. It takes a certain kind of person to propose a crack-of-dawn concert, and a particular kind of production team and trustees to allow it to happen.
That the Sunrise concert was sold out was perhaps not surprising – there was only space for 65 people. But every single person had made a higher than normal commitment to be there meaning the intensity of the experience was greater. We were the hard-core. The ones who made an extra special effort to be here. This was A Proper Festival and we were Proper Festivalgoers.
Music in the Round’s distinctiveness goes beyond the immersive listening experience. It’s committed to bold programming. This isn’t an urban classical music festival catering for a specific demographic who smell of lavender talc and mouldy hymn books. Curated by composer Helen Grime, this year’s Festival combines familiar works with challenging new music. The energy it exudes is exciting.
Anna Meredith’s Tripotage
On the first night a highly inventive and cohesive work from Anna Meredith – Tripotage – creates evocative vignettes with unconventional instrumental combinations. piccolo and double Bass creates an eerie Far East feel. ‘Buzzard’ played by viola and violin is especially compelling with a short motive ‘squawked’ on the viola at ever increasing intervals.
Music by Helen Grime features in the second night concert, alongside Cage, and Huw Watkins. The new and unfamiliar works (in this programme the Cage appears almost mainstream in the way it unexpectedly establishes a tranquil state) challenge and stretch. By the time we arrive at the Dvorak in the second half, I hear the familiar romantic language in the Piano Quartet with new ears. In this space the experience is not unlike doing an intense gym workout followed by some time in a steam room.
This approach isn’t new nor confined to Sheffield. But there is a sense the audience is more than just tolerating the unfamiliar as some kind of purgatory before the work they really came for. Nearly all of the seats are occupied and the applause is hearty after each work. Perhaps the audience comes to Music in the Round events not only expecting to be challenged but wanting to be with a range of thought-provoking works.
“It’s got Helens very definite fingerprints, her enthusiasms, her relationships all over it,” says Edward Mackay, Music in the Round’s Programme Manager. “That’s what’s exciting about working with her. It feels like it’s an evolution of what we do. We’ve always been champions of new music. I think the balance is different this year, and there is more of it than they would otherwise be.”
Who are the curators for future Sheffield Chamber Music Festivals?
In the years to come Kathryn Stott and Steven Isserlis are scheduled to curate, bringing their own distinctive choices to each successive festival and a marketing challenge to the small nimble team. How does Music in the Round ensure that distinctive edge and ensure audience appetite.
“That intimacy and familiarity brings about a family feeling,” says Edward. “That means we get very honest and very direct feedback from our audience, if they don’t like something we’re doing, they tell us if they do like it.”
Music in the Round’s Sheffield Chamber Music Festival featuring Ensemble 360 runs until Saturday 21 May 2022.
It seems incredible to me that pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is only thirty this year, and that’s its 18 year since his BBC Young Musician appearance.
This year has seen him artist in residence at Wigmore Hall building on a growing collection of recordings for Decca. He’s packed a lot in to a short space of time and it seems handled the pressure well.
There is maturity that has developed in his sound that builds on his early established calling card (see later in the post for an explanation). He does theatre at the keyboard without breaking a sweat. A remarkable sight.
In recital Grosvenor is an assertive player, drawing on remarkable reserves of power at a moments notice, helping him create epic dramatic contrasts whenever the score dictates. He conjures up a symphonic sound at the keyboard, contrasting vast sound worlds with tender moments that linger and occasions haunt. This ability to shift gear at a moments is one of the things that makes Grosvenor’s playing so very exciting, evident in Schumann’s Kreisleriana.
Albeniz’s Iberia has a more compelling musical story, making the first work of the second half perhaps the more satisfying listen.
Benjamin Grosvenor also has a trademark. I picked it out the first time I heard (sat in the gallery at the BBC Proms maybe fifteen years back) and it was on full display reliable and consistent as ever in Ravel’s Jeux l’eau and La Valse. In both pieces it is the fluidity in his scales snd arpeggios that really take my breath away. They’re smooth, dynamic, and supple. Musical acrobatics.
All this whilst maintaining a mild-mannered physicality at the keyboard. Perhaps the oddest thing is the way when he playing at his most expansive, his music makes me smile with pride as though I’ve somehow created myself.