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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