The Hills Were Alive to the Sound of Music

Alighting at the tram stop outside of Sheffield Cathedral on Saturday afternoon around 4.20pm, the sound of drum-kit playing near by could not be missed.

Not recalling that being part of the first Classical Sheffield Festival of Music, though perhaps apt with the city filled with music over the weekend just ended, curiosity prompted a brief detour to the bottom of Fargate.

Sat there was a guy in front of a snare drum with a single cymbal to his left and another guy doing the same tap-like dance steps, repetitively, to the seemingly same percussive rhythmic figuration heard time-after-time to his right!

Diversion over, headed back to the Cathedral to hear what the city’s composer collective, Platform 4, had come up with at its Made in Sheffield concert, which was part of the CS Festival.

A surprisingly large audience for contemporary music that continued to grow over the concert’s 45-minute duration warmly, often enthusiastically applauded everything it was offered.

It was all pretty effective material and will doubtlessly have appealed differently to individual ears. This pair found Lament by Jenny Jackson especially so, anchored by a solo cellist (an excellent Charlie Hardwick) with its distanced singing voices.

Two Sketches of Arran by Chris Noble, solo piano pieces of post-impressionistic feel with a contemporary edge, played by the composer himself went down well; or maybe Tom Owen’s extremely well-constructed Three Songs of Swooping, with some rewarding cor anglais music for Martin Lightowler to play, hit a chord.

Then, again, perhaps it was Waxing Crescent/ Waning Crescent by Tom James that did, especially the desolation of the latter. Either way, this and the Tom Owen piece were eminently notable for soprano Andrea Tweedale successfully getting her thorax round some not easy vocal music.

A somewhat painful amble down Chapel Walk to the Crucible Studio brings another initial encounter with drumming guy still doing his thing, but the other now has a guitar round his neck twanging it.

Upon arrival, another sizeable audience is present to hear Ensemble 360’s string members and pianist on top form in further contemporaneous repertoire, although only one piece was from recent times – Huw Watkins’s Piano Trio from 2009.

Watkins is a highly rated composer but, in all honesty, it did nothing for this pair of ears. The musicians, Benjamin Nabarro, Gemma Rosefield and Tim Horton, clearly enjoyed performing it, though, and one had to admire the timing evident in the playing.

It was a case of ditto, really, when the latter offered Boulez’s Notations for piano, 12 miniatures he penned in 1945 but metaphorically there was evidence that it could have been yesterday. Being the first encounter with both, perhaps further hearings would reveal merits missed in the initial one.

No such problem under the same circumstances with the four items from Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages, his ongoing collection of umpteen miniatures for solo instruments or combinations of instruments.

Here it was four strongly contrasted pieces for string trio which left you wondering how the C string on Gemma Rosefield’s cello survived the violent plucking in third one, before less considerably less aggression in the engaging all-pizzicato fourth.

Bartók’s Third String Quartet, which followed and ended the concert, was simply a terrific tour de force performance, of the sort you say that nothing else could follow. Oh, yes, it could!

Ensemble 360 re-appeared 20 minutes later and topped it with the equally folk-music driven, sunnier Op 77 string quintet by Dvořák, a work that can seem a little unrelenting in its almost continuous drive, punctuated only by an oasis of calm in its wonderful third movement andante.

In these circumstances you find yourself wishing he left it as he wrote it, as a five-movement work with a second movement intermezzo – clipped out and re-worked as the Nocturne in B for string orchestra – as he felt that what was originally published as his Op 18 was too long.

(It ended up as Op 77 because he slightly revised the work twelve years after its premiere in 1876).

No problem here where it was paced and regularly allowed to breath until the last movement bounded along with an infectious enthusiasm that saw Laurène Durantel’s double bass slowly moving a good two feet to the left leaving Ben Nabarro in imminent danger of being impaled on her bow!

In short: a stunning performance of a gloriously optimistic piece of music!

On the subject of short: two brief operas were played out with conspicuous success by Opera on Location after Ensemble 360 had departed from the Studio, Menotti’s The Telephone and Barber’s A Hand of Bridge.

Between them, Andrea Tweedale re-appeared to occupy the space for 15 minutes with an extremely well sung performance of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 moving round it bare-foot in a long evening dress. The ‘rhapsodic’ sound of the composer’s orchestra is rather lost in his piano version, though, despite Ewan Gilford’s best efforts to find it.

Quick set, and dress change and Andrea emerged in high heels as a slightly ditzy Sally wondering which hat to buy in the 10-minute Barber opera, leaving her husband Bill (Gareth Lloyd) wondering if she has discovered he has a mistress.

As the other unhappily married couple, Chloe Saywell was a positively bored Geraldine lamenting that no-one loved her, after which her husband David (Aidan Edwards) regaled with the utmost bitterness against his boss before musing on his sexual fantasies in the most operatic of the four ariettas.

Menotti’s opera was played first and splendidly performed by Chloe Saywell with all the necessary coloratura fireworks for Lucy and Gareth Lloyd (Ben), a tenor but with a dark enough vocal timbre to pass for a baritone – and yes, we did have an iPhone, not one with the hand set Menotti envisaged. The opera’s director Louise Pymer couldn’t resist that!

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Crumb and Reich

Clearly named after the composer, the Ligeti Quartet, a young foursome hailed as the UK’s leading exponents of contemporary music, has been appointed Sheffield University Concerts’ first-ever Associate Artists.

So many coincidences attach themselves to its first violin, Mandhira de Saram, she must surely be related to the distinguished cellist, Sheffield-born to Ceylonese (now Sri Lankan) parents Rohan de Saram, long associated with the Arditti Quartet.

Be that as it may, the Ligeti appears at Firth Hall next Tuesday in the University Concert Season to play a programme of music mainly by American composers, all of them still on this mortal coil.

Some scary stuff is on offer with Black Angels by the avant-garde composer George Crumb, which he subtitled as Thirteen Images from the Dark Land – we are told it was his response to the American war in Vietnam!

It makes the concert’s other main work, the three-movement Different Trains for amplified quartet and tape by Steve Reich, penned 19 years later in 1989 sound almost conventional!

The outer movements represent train journeys Reich made between New York and Los Angeles visiting his separated parents before and after World War Two and, in the central one, during the conflict when he also ponders, as a Jew, the sort of train he might have been travelling on had he lived in Europe.

Two other works getting performances are by jazz trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith: String Quartet No 3 ‘Black Church’ and String Quartet No 4 ‘In the Diaspora’, two of 19 pieces he wrote over 34 years reflecting the civil rights movement that went into a highly acclaimed four-CD set, Ten Freedom Summers, in 2012.

Completing the concert is Five Famous Adagios by the much younger, London-born Johanna Bailie, perhaps best described as a composer with leanings towards experimentalism.

Sisters Steal Away

Sisters Jo Briddock and Rachel Mallaband have more reasons than most to be looking forward to this weekend’s Classical Sheffield Festival of Music.

They are part of a quartet of singers featured in Deep River from Tippett’s A Child of our Time in the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus concert, Steal Away – Spirituals and More, in the City Hall Ballroom on Saturday afternoon.

“We’ve sung together in the chorus for over 10 years now,” says Rachel, “but when Jo texted to say I was one of the quartet you could have knocked me down will a feather!” she laughs.

“It was her fault,” she continues pointing at big sister Jo, “I would never have volunteered to sing anything on my own that had a top B in it!”

A number of families are represented in the chorus – husbands and wives, mums and daughters. Indeed, family members are encouraged to join the chorus if they meet the standard expected by music director Darius Battiwalla.

Jo’s claim to fame is singing at the Proms and filming Songs of Praise for the BBC when the chorus first became associated with the local village carols.

“Recording the CD was certainly a highlight too,” she says, referring to Awake, Arise! the chorus’s new recording featuring some local carols due out on the 20th of November. “We are so lucky, getting to record such fabulous arrangements, and in the City Hall too!”

Childhood Memories of Knoxville

Sheffield’s music-making organisations have come up with some enterprising and worthwhile material to perform in this weekend’s Classical Sheffield Festival of Music.

None more so than Opera on Location at the Crucible Studio on Saturday evening when it performs two operas and a sort of song cycle, because of its mood swings, in 45 minutes – all complete!

The latter is Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a superbly atmospheric work he penned in 1947 to a text drawn from a prose piece by James Agee: a memoir of childhood written in the first person which he was moved to commit to paper in 1938.

The words fluctuate between a child and adult uttering them as a boy’s feelings of security and safety vacillate with those of fear and darkness, culminating in a prayer for the well-being of his family.

The piece is continuous and Barber’s music dresses the words beautifully. He described it as a lyric rhapsody and wrote the work to a commission from one of America’s greatest sopranos of the time Eleanor Steber.

It is invariably performed by a soprano, despite the words coming out of a boy’s mouth; but can, apparently, be sung by a tenor – although not come across one yet!

The work lasts 15 minutes, five more than Barber’s one-act opera from 1959, A Hand of Bridge!

A fairly straightforward affair – well, you can’t get too complicated in ten minutes! – it has four characters: a soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone, as two unhappily married couples who meet for one of their regular bridge evenings.

As a game progresses, each person moves away from it to express their inner feelings in an arietta, Bill’s ending with his wife Sally exclaiming: The Queen, you have trumped the Queen!

A comedy with a dark side, the often-witty libretto was written by Barber’s long-time companion Gian Carlo Menotti, another composer, primarily of opera and shamelessly ignored.

Menotti completes the 45 minutes with another, better known one act opera, The Telephone, which premiered in 1947. It proved to be one of his more popular pieces and has an even more straightforward plot, although it lasts twice as long!

Ben arrives to propose to Lucy before leaving on a trip only to find her glued to a telephone having conservations. Eventually, not wanting to miss his train, he leaves but makes one more attempt to get her attention when he gets outside – guess how!

Beethoven Plus

Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas are popular in Sheffield at the moment. *

The second of three complete cycles of them begins at Firth Hall next Tuesday as part of the Sheffield University Concert Season and catches the eye.

Offering it is the London-born violinist of Polish descent Krysia Osostowicz, no stranger to the city. Early Music in the Round Festival-goers will recall her from the piano quartet Domus and she is also a founder member of the Dante String Quartet.

Her pianist is Daniel Tong, primarily known for his work with the London Bridge Trio – the composer not the landmark, were you not aware!

The attraction, other than the outstanding Osostowicz and a first rate pianist performing them, is the inspired programming of the ten sonatas over four concerts. Each has a newly commissioned, companion piece penned by ten leading composers!

The rather original and stimulating idea appears to have been dreamt up by Osostowicz. To quote from an interview she gave to The Independent last December about the project, Beethoven Plus as it was named.

“When I work on a piece I like to look into it from the composer’s point of view,” says Osostowicz, “to work out why a piece is written as it is. It seemed a small step to talking about how a living composer would respond to it.”

Ten composers, including Judith Bingham, Jonathan Dove, David Matthews and Huw Watkins, were approached to write a piece prompted by a specific Beethoven violin sonata – Watkins No 5, Matthews No 10, for instance – and each reacted to a variety of stimuli.

“Traditional concert audiences will be pleased because the responses are short,” said Osostowicz in The Independent interview in the knowledge that new music is viewed as a daunting prospect.

“The difference between the original and the response will be like the difference between a novel and a short story,” she added.

The new pieces are all said to be of around five minute-duration, actually, but if you are reading this you are in front of a computer, or on a tablet, so go to www.beethovenplus.com and it tells you everything.

A Beethoven Pass to all four Beethoven Plus concerts at Firth Hall for the price of three is available. The other dates are the 17th of November, 23rd of February and 12th of April.

* The first cycle got underway in September when freelance violinist Lucy Phillips, based in the city, embarked on it over a series of concerts at St Andrew’s Psalter Lane Church.

Benjamin Nabarro and Tim Horton launch the third, over eight concerts, towards the end of November in Music in the Round’s season at the Crucible Studio – the concerts also include the complete Beethoven piano trios and cello sonatas!