Mesmeric Klezmer

It is reported that the St Andrew’s Music Festival got off to a highly successful start last Sunday, the 13th of November, with a concert given by the leading world music couple, Merlin and Polina Shepherd.

A packed audience in St Andrew’s Psalter Lane Church is said have been transfixed for two hours by the sheer virtuosity and musicianship of the former’s clarinet playing and the latter’s “astonishingly beautiful singing voice.”

After the concert, Polina wrote: “This was my first performance in Sheffield and I found the audience to be attentive, supportive and a wonderful listening crowd. I would be happy to return at any point, as there is clearly a need and a love of Yiddish music.

“Many thanks for bringing us to the city and to a wonderful venue.”

Merlin added: “It was fantastic to come back to city where Klezmer first took off in the UK. Having been involved at the start of it all, it’s wonderful to feel the hunger and interest in all things Klezmer and Yiddish oriented, still shining here.”

An exhibition alongside the concert mapped the progress of how the Klezmer wave began in Sheffield in the 1980s and there will be more of Merlin and Polina Shepherd when they return to the city next March, the 29th, in the Sheffield University Concert Season.

Review: Der Winterreise

You could appreciate the 21st century take on Schubert’s immortal song cycle by Roderick Williams and Christopher Glynn, but you didn’t have to like it!

Although increasingly treated as such, Lieder (or art song to use its genre heading) is not opera with dramatic and vocal gestures, though it could be argued to have got closer to the form in the 20th century, especially with the growth of music theatre.

In effect, this is what we had here enhanced by the fact that we were in a building that exists as a theatre, which Williams took the fullest advantage off.

He was never still: up and down the stage level aisles of the Crucible Studio, rendering songs while sat down on one of the steps and even managing to perch himself behind Glynn on his piano stool for Das Wirtshaus (No 21).

Character-creation was suspended, however, for a quick dash between aisles after Rast (No 10) for Frühlingstraum (No 11)!

Nothing to get unduly hot under the collar over perhaps, but there was from the standpoint of Schubert when it was completely over the top!

Williams and Glynn had no intention of it sounding like the last Wintereisse you heard and went to daring, doubtless well-intentioned lengths to ensure it didn’t.

Musically, the approach was largely declamatory and veristic with wide dynamic contrasts, Mut (No 22) with a wide rhythmic swing. Legato lines tended to be eschewed in the name of dramatic effect.

Not normally heard staccato singing and playing was in evidence, vividly so in Die Wetterfahne (No 2) and Im Dorfe (No 17), respectively; but a major miscalculation was the speed that Rückblick (No 8) was taken at which obliterated the song’s shape.

In lesser hands, it could have been a disaster but the inherent musicianship of those here, allied to the Williams’ vocal intensity, just about enabled the cycle to stay afloat and was rewarded with a loud, noisy reception at the end followed by a standing ovation.

King Edward VII Spirituals

This will be of interest to those of a certain age on Norman Barnes (1914-2000), courtesy of Simon Lindley

NORMAN J BARNES, MBE, MA, MusB, FRCO
Former Exeter Cathedral chorister Norman Barnes was, in terms of Sheffield’s musical community at its history, clearly “the right man in the right place at the right time.”

After return from war service, his long tenure as organist and choirmaster of St John’s Ranmoor from 1949 had begun with deputising for a friend and involved continuous service until 1983 as organist and choirmaster.

He was Director of Music at King Edward VII Grammar School for 29 years until retirement in 1976 and was to become the first conductor of (the then newly founded) Sheffield Bach Choir, a post he held with distinction until 1961 when he was succeeded by the Choir’s accompanist, Dr Roger Bullivant.

The Bach Choir had been established specifically to mark the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death in Leipzig in 1750 and sustains, even today, a considerable link between “town and gown” in the City and University of Sheffield.

Norman Barnes’s education after Exeter Cathedral was at Magdalen College School, Oxford and he was Organ Scholar of St Peter’s College in the same city from 1935 to 1939.

Prior to moving to Sheffield and King Edward’s, Norman was organist for a short time at St Margaret’s Church in Oxford of which the Reverend Geoffrey Lindley, father of present-day Bach Choir conductor, Dr Simon Lindley, is a former Vicar.

At its November 2016 concert Sheffield Bach Choir is including six short settings by Norman of Traditional Spirituals dating from over fifty years ago and composed especially for King Edward’s “Spiritual Choir”.

Originally reproduced by ‘Banda duplicator’ (a primitive hand-operated machine), the scores have now been re-set by King Edward alumnus David Hope to whom the Bach Choir is much indebted for this significant work.

 

The Wife with Two Husbands

Opera on Location is on its travels again, literally, because instead of settling in one venue for a run of performances the company will be giving single ones at five between the 21st and 28th of November.

It could be called a tour, or a pub-crawl as the destinations include the Rising Sun on Fulwood Road, Shakespeare’s on Gibraltar Street, Sentinel Brewhouse on Shoreham Street (on twice here) and the Red Deer on Pitt Street.

The fifth location is the Blue Moon Café, adjacent to the main entrance to Sheffield Cathedral, and ‘doing the rounds’ is Donizetti’s one-act comic opera Rita.

Lasting just short of a hour, there are three characters: Rita, a tyrannical inn landlady who makes the life of her timid husband Beppe a misery, and Gaspar, Rita’s first husband and wife-beater who everyone thought had drowned at sea.

He, on the other hand, had heard that Rita had perished in a house fire and turns up to ask for the death certificate as he intends to remarry. To the horror of both they naturally recognise each other while an overjoyed Beppe sees freedom on the horizon – but…!

In style, an opéra-comique with eight engaging musical numbers linked by spoken dialogue, Donizetti penned it in Paris in 1841 intending it for the Opéra-Comique in the French capital.

However, it was rejected so he had the libretto translated into Italian for a promised performance in Naples. That fell through as well and the unperformed score was found among the composer’s effects after his death in 1848.

Twelve years later the Opéra-Comique premiered the work as Rita, ou Le mari battu – Rita, or The Beaten Husband, but outings after were sporadic for 100 years until 1955 when it caught on after a production in Rome.

Since then the opera has never looked back since with performances here, there and everywhere both in its original French and Italian translation.

Opera on Location’s performance, in collaboration with the Year of Making and Abbeydale Brewery, is the English with Andrea Tweedale: Rita, Gareth Lloyd: Beppe, and Matthew Palmer: Gaspar, and you see and hear it for nothing.

Tickets are free but you are asked to reserve your place, via Eventbrite. Dates and times can be found on the Classical Sheffield Calendar at www.classicalsheffield.org.uk

The ticket link is: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/opera-on-location-9844280950

Elgar’s ‘War Requiem’

An unfairly neglected Elgar masterpiece, The Spirit of England, is on the programme at the next concert in the Sheffield International Concert Season at the City Hall on the 4th of November.

Why the work occupies peripheral status in the composer’s output is something of a mystery.

First performed complete in 1917, hence written during the First World War which it reflects, it has been suggested that the reason for its scarcity of outings is that it is only really suitable for performance around Remembrance weekend – rubbish!

You might as well say that about Britten’s War Requiem, a soubriquet that has attached itself to Elgar’s work, although its starting point is completely different.

Coincidentally or not, however, the performance in Sheffield takes place a week before it!

A three-movement work for soprano, chorus and orchestra, each is a setting of a poem from Laurence Binyon’s anthology of verse The Winnowing Fan published in late 1914: ‘The Fourth of August’, ‘To Women’ and ‘For the Fallen’.

The first depicts the optimism and sense of adventure as Britons sailed to Europe at the outset of the war. The second, the horrors of the very quick stark reality and heavy loss of life and the third, the tragic realism of the need for sacrifice if victory is to be achieved.

The second and third movements were premiered in May 1916, but Elgar was in a quandary over the first. Some of Binyon’s words were harsh towards the German nation and he felt a lasting debt of thanks towards it for championing his earlier works.

Realising that it had changed beyond redemption as he lived through the conflict, he eventually resolved his dilemma by quoting music from the Demon’s Chorus in The Dream of Gerontius.

Summed up, after the patriotic strains of the first movement, Elgar’s work captures the desolation and sorrow around him with a fair amount of poignancy, especially in the second movement, without becoming mawkish and with often subtle, under-appreciated inspiration.

He abridged and reworked the last movement for chorus and orchestra as With Proud Thanksgiving for the unveiling of the cenotaph in London in 1920, but it was not used.

Three other highly attractive works make up the concert given by the Hallé, Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and regularly raved about soprano Elizabeth Atherton who also gets to sing Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, penned 30 years after the Elgar!

Should you not know it, it’s an evocative setting of excerpts from James Agee’s childhood memories in a short prose poem in Knoxville, Tennessee seen through the eyes of a child.

Barber described it as a “lyric rhapsody,” which is about right!

The chorus, meanwhile, has Vaughan Williams’ magnificent setting of Walt Whitman’s Toward the Unknown Region to itself with the Hallé and conductor James Burton who begin the concert with Arnold Bax’s Cornish symphonic poem Tintagel.

With good reason, the composer’s most regularly heard work, but it does rather cast a dense shadow over equally fine, ignored pieces that he wrote.

 

‘I have a song to sing…’

Some celebrated names and a number approaching such status are due in Sheffield over three days, two heavily packed, in November.

The occasion is a Song-Makers Festival, 11th –13th of November, as part of the University of Sheffield Concert Season, and is as compelling as the main body of the series of concerts in it.

Renowned baritone Roderick Williams begins the weekend with pianist Christopher Glynn on the 11th with a sold out performance of Schubert’s Winterreise at the Crucible Studio, one of two events in association with Music in the Round.

Moving on to the next day, the second one at Firth Hall is an all-embracing exploration of German song, including a masterclass with university students (10am –3.30pm).

Highly rated young mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and Simon Lepper, one of the UK’s best younger generation piano accompanists, are at Upper Chapel (2 –3pm) with Nights Not Spent Alone, a cycle of three Edna St Vincent Millay poems written for her by Jonathan Dove.

Making up the programme are pieces of similar nature by Fauré: Avant que tu ne t’en ailles (La Bonne Chanson); Debussy: Trois Chansons de Bilitis; Vaughan Williams: Tired (Four Last Songs); Barber: Nocturne (Four Songs Op 13); and Sondheim: Could I Leave You? from Follies.

Shostakovich is at the same venue (4 –5pm) when Russian song specialist, soprano Joan Rodgers, performs his Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok with the Phoenix Piano Trio, which also offers the composer’s Second Piano Trio.

The trio’s pianist is Sholto Kynoch, founder and director of the Oxford Lieder Festival.

Moving to Firth Hall (7 –8pm) with Simon Lepper we have Messiaen, his Andean-flavoured song cycle Harawi for dramatic soprano and piano from Gweneth-Ann Rand.

“Why don’t we hear more of this accomplished soprano?” asked the Daily Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen last year!

Another British-born soprano we seem certain to hear more of, Raphaela Papadakis, moves in with Sholto Kynoch (9 –10pm) and four of Schoenberg’s eight humorous Brettl-Lieder (Cabaret Songs) from 1901 – guaranteed to drown misconceptions of him!

There are also similarly themed outings for pieces by Poulenc (three), Satie (two), including the fabulous La Diva de l’Empire, Joseph Marx (four) and Lehár – the saucy Meine Lippen from Giuditta!

And so to the 13th and still at Firth Hall where a tenor making a name for himself, Daniel Norman, performs Vaughan Williams’ Housman cycle On Wenlock Edge with Sholto Kynoch and the Gildas Quartet (12.30 –1.30pm).

There has to be something else, to be confirmed – Britten’s Winter Words, in Norman’s repertoire, would be an ideal foil! (This piece will be updated when we know!).

Graham Johnson, no less, the doyen of British piano accompanists, puts an appearance in with gifted younger generation baritone Benedict Nelson (2.30-3.30pm) for a programme entitled ‘Odysseus’ prompted by Homer’s Odyssey.

Performed in Harrogate in July, there is nothing particularly Greek about it with Ulysses’ epic journey reflected in songs by Schubert (eight), Zemlinksy, Clara and Robert Schumann, and Fauré (two).

Raphaela Papadakis returns with the Gildas Quartet (4.30 –5.30pm) for the final recital and Schumann’s six songs Op 107, the posthumous five Ophelia Songs by Brahms and Mendelssohn arranged for soprano and string quartet by Aribert Reimann.

The Mendelssohn is Oder soll es tod bedeuten, eight Heine settings, including On Wings of Song, knitted together with short Reimann-composed instrumental bridge material.

They might need his similar exercise on Schubert’s three Mignon songs to make up the time!

How Bach’s St John Passion (7.30pm), across the road from Firth Hall in the Octagon Centre, with massed Sheffield choirs and English Touring Opera involvement comes mark the end of the festival is obscure.

University of Sheffield Concert Season

Forged in Sheffield; Global Soundtracks; Sound Laboratory; Song-Makers – four headings you see a lot of looking at what is on offer in the new University of Sheffield Concert Season at Firth Hall!

It has certainly been planned with considerable imagination, all the concerts/ events in it falling under one of the headings with two notable exceptions.

One is a screening of a 1928 silent film classic La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (22nd November) with a live soundtrack provided by the renowned Orlando Consort performing French vocal music from the 15th century.

The other enticing prospect is A Child’s Christmas in Wales (twice, 18th December), the anecdotal prose poem by Dylan Thomas delivered by Gruffudd Glyn, seen in such films as he Theory of Everything,  with appropriate seasonal music arranged for and played by the Ligeti Quartet.

Musing on the categorised concerts in the season up to the end of 2016, the ‘Sound Laboratory’ series, ostensibly concentrating on contemporary music, features much Messiaen.

Proceedings can be said to have got off to a stuttering start on the 21st of September with the composer’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux in a presentation involving visuals and an ornithologist.

Two Global Soundtrack concerts this month (October) and the season begins in earnest on the 1st of November with Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus from the highly rated young pianist Cordelia Williams who has made a speciality out of playing it.

Here, the 20 ‘contemplations’ are each preceded or followed by words mirroring them written by poet Michael Symmons Roberts who recites them.

A third Messiaen keyboard cycle (9th December), La Nativité du Seigneur, is performed at Sheffield Cathedral by the cathedral’s acting director of music Joshua Hales as part of the season.

The Ligeti Quartet (15th November) is in slightly more contemporaneous mode with a programme of Kurtág, Webern, Ligeti, Stravinsky and Bartók (Fifth Quartet), plus a new work by Elliot Galvin.

A Sound Junction weekend featuring new electroacoustic works (25th –27th November) is definitely in contemporary realms, as should be a New Music Ensemble concert (29th November) with Peter Maxwell Davies remembered following his death in March.

‘Global Soundtracks’ focuses on world/ folk music with evenings featuring Kathryn Tickell (18th October), Kefaya (25th October), Karine Polwart (5th November), Chango Spasiuk (10th November), Sarah Jarosz (18th November) and Martin Simpson (13th December).

Back on home territory, ‘Forged in Sheffield’ puts the spotlight on concerts given by the Department of Music’s excellent in-house ensembles and orchestras, the first to appear being the award-winning University Wind Orchestra (4th December).

The Symphony Orchestra strikes up with Borodin, Holst and Stravinsky (11th December) and, in between (6th December), there is an evening of Alan Jay Lerner songs written with composers other than Frederick Loewe, courtesy of Dominic McHugh and Matthew Malone – who else?

‘Song-Makers’ is a crammed weekend festival of song (11th –13th November) and demands a separate piece – see ‘I have a song to sing…’

 

Embodiments

Since forming itself in 2010, Sheffield’s composer collective Platform 4 has been building up a have-to-heard, not to say seen, reputation and the group’s most ambitious outing so far, Embodiments, is at the University Drama Studio on the 24th of September.

It follows increasingly high-profile appearances, as opposed to specialised gigs, such at last October’s Classical Sheffield festival and more recent outreach work in Music in the Round’s May Festival.

When was the last time you heard new, contemporary music enthusiastically applauded?

It happened last October and the quartet in question, Jenny Jackson, Tom James, Chris Noble and Tom Owen, have somehow developed a formula that makes contemporary music accessible to a wider audience.

All four are University of Sheffield postgraduates and profess to enjoy collaborating on projects with a broad range of artists from other disciplines.

The roots of Embodiments go back to 2012 when Jenny worked in association with choreographer Sue Lewis. She was commissioned to compose a new dance work for Ffin Dance, a professional dance company based in Wales.

The piece, Five Dances, was part of a Ffin Dance ‘Connections’ tour around the UK, described as a “great experience,” with the ‘live music’ performed by Platform 4’s in-house ensemble – many members are also ex-Sheffield University alumni!

All four composers have now created a new dance piece, self-contained and highly contrasted works in which sound embodies movement and movement embodies sound. They are said to showcase each composer’s personality and aesthetics.

The one-off night of four premieres are collaborations with Hannah Wadsworth, a highly experienced contemporary dance specialist and choreographer and, figuring in two of the pieces, soprano Andrea Tweedale who will be familiar to many in Sheffield. Platform 4’s aforementioned in-house ensemble is also in attendance.

Gifts Ungiven by Tom Owen is his fourth piece written for the soprano. Its central concerns are psychosis, dementia and obsessional behaviours, with Andrea appearing as a befuddled old lady and Hannah Wadsworth helping to ‘embody’ various elements of the afflictions.

Three Nerve Pathways by Tom James are three variations for dancer, nine instruments and tape. While abstract, they are essentially a representation of the physical and mental illnesses that have afflicted him over the past year and range from a blank, bare opening to a multi-layered, uncoordinated panic.

Strut Machine by Chris Noble documents the ‘living lie’, how a story once told is repeated so many times, the person telling it starts to believe it, even if the sub-conscience, somewhere, knows it to be false…

It features a jazz-influenced line up of electric piano, double bass, bass clarinet and drums.

Folies by Jenny Jackson is described is as an absurd, comedic, entertaining piece of music theatre for dancer, soprano, bass clarinet and ensemble.

It uses text taken from an Italian Futurist poem and explores the nature of what it is to be a ‘creator’ and the conflict between artistic freedom on the one hand, and the oppression of (perceived) criticism and judgement on the other.

Platform 4’s next big exposure is interesting, by the way. Four commissioned, companion pieces based on works from Russian repertoire for inclusion in Music in the Round’s May Festival next year.

 

Sheffield Bach Choir 2016-2017 Season

Sheffield Bach Choir gets its 2016-2017 season underway a little earlier than usual with Bach’s B minor Mass at Sheffield Cathedral on the 1st of October – but then, there is an ‘extra’ in it!

Messiah, actually! A second performance a Handel’s oratorio in the season!

The normal, annual outing still takes place on the first Monday of December, this year the 5th, and next April there is another performance, which will certainly not sound the same.

Taking place on the 8th of April, it virtually coincides with 275th anniversary of the first-ever performance of Messiah in Dublin on the 13th of April 1742.

Not that an attempt is being made at a ‘historically informed’ performance. On the contrary, it is a Come and Sing Messiah using Denis Wright’s astute 1946 transcription of the orchestral parts for brass band.

It is a celebration of the work’s 275th birthday!

Phillip McCann, no less, is assembling the brass forces and the Bach Choir’s illustrious music director, Simon Lindley is reported to be “terribly excited” over the performance.

Professional soloists, as always, will be on duty and tickets to sing or listen are priced at £10 – children £5.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the season there is another Handel oratorio between Bach and the ‘first’ Messiah, Israel in Egypt, on the 12th of November and a further work the choir also performs periodically, Mendelssohn’s Elijah on the 4th of March.

All the concerts are at Sheffield Cathedral, except the last one on the 10th of June, Music for a Summer Evening, which is again given as part of the Broomhill Festival at St Mark’s Church.

Further information at www.sheffieldbachchoir.org.uk

 

Music in the Round Autumn Season 2016

Music in the Round’s autumn series of concerts in Sheffield begins with solo Bach on the 4th of October and ends with solo Bach on the 10th of December from two outstanding musicians.

In October it is exclusively Bach when the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt adds the Crucible Studio to the roster of prestigious venues she has performed in around the world with a captivating programme of seven works.

Added up by BWV numbers, it is actually 35 and a visit to www.musicintheround.co.uk will reveal all.

Just a couple of Bach works, the respective solo Sonata and Partita No 3, when the super Russian-born violinist Alina Ibragimova gives what promises to be a mesmerising recital in St Marie’s Cathedral at the December concert.

Completing it are the last three of the six unaccompanied opus 27 sonatas penned in 1923 by the Belgian violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe and place enormous technical demands on the performer.

Another exceptional musician of international standing, baritone Roderick Williams, offers Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise with pianist Christopher Glynn (11th November), although as MitR’s singer-in-residence he cannot really be called a visiting guest artist these days.

On the other hand, the Van Kuijk Quartet, a young French string quartet rapidly making international waves, fits the bill and play quartets by Haydn: Op 76 No 4, Ravel, and Beethoven: Op 127 (12th October).

The Marmen Quartet also programme Haydn: Op 50 No 1, and Beethoven: Op 132 (8th November), separating them with the Third String Quartet by Philip Glass, its subtitle Mishima being the title of a film with a Japanese subject for which it formed the soundtrack.

The Leonore Piano Trio continues its journey through the complete Beethoven violin sonatas with Op 47, the Kreutzer; cello and piano works with See the Conquering Hero Comes Variations; and piano trios with Op 1 No 3 (30th November).

Ensemble 360, meanwhile, begins its contributions to the autumn series rather enterprisingly with Elgar’s Violin Sonata, Coleridge-Taylor’s Piano Quintet in G minor – yes, he of Hiawatha-fame! – and Dvořák’s Second Piano Quartet Op 87 (6th October).

The latter crops up again (26th October) with his Dumky piano trio, plus Schubert’s B flat piano trio and the Brahms Horn Trio.

Trios and Brahms are still on the agenda at Upper Chapel (17th November) with the composer’s Op 87 piano trio and the first performance of a commissioned work, Ostara for clarinet, cello and piano by Dani Howard who is in the midst of premieres at present!

Book-ending the two works are Schumann’s Fantasiestücke Op 73 for clarinet and piano and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet.

Two further works by Brahms are scheduled, the Op 11 Serenade for chamber ensemble and Op 34 piano quintet, along with Schubert’s Quartettsatz (3rd December).

There are also two lunchtime concerts of more than passing interest at Upper Chapel involving pianist Tim Horton.

At the first (24th November), viola player Ruth Gibson offers a transcription of Franck’s Violin Sonata, Britten’s Lachrymae and arrangements of four movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet.

The second (8th December) features double bass player Laurène Durantel playing two Beethoven cello works, the Bei Männerin Variations and Sonata No 2 (neither transposed), the Passacaglia from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas and as the second pair of hands in a four-hand piano arrangement of Wagner’s Mastersingers Overture!

All concerts are at the Crucible Studio, except where noted.