Archive for Brighton Dome

The Dream of Gerontius

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by telescoper

Just a quick lunchtime post to mention that I took yesterday (Sunday) evening off to attend a concert at the Brighton Dome which was part of the annual Brighton Festival. The perf0rmance consisted of just one piece: The Dream of Gerontius by Sir Edward Elgar, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Edward Gardner) together with the Brighton Festival Chorus.

I happen to know a couple of people who sing with the Brighton Festival Chorus. Both were a bit nervous ahead of last night’s performance because it’s a challenging work and although they’ve been rehearsing the choral passages themselves, they only had a short time to practice together with the orchestra. Reading about the performance history of this work, their fears might have been justified: the first performance, in Birmingham in 1900, was a shambles, largely due to inadequate rehearsal time, and it took some time for it to become established in the repertoire. As it turned out, however, they had nothing to worry about. I thought the Chorus was magnificent, as was the Orchestra and indeed the three soloists: Alice Coote (Mezzo), Robert Murray (Tenor) and Matthew Rose (Bass). I particularly liked Matthew Rose’s performance. He cut an imposing figure on the platform, towering over the other musicians, and his sonorous bass tones projected wonderfully.

Although I began by saying that the concert was “just one piece”, The Dream of Gerontius is a very substantial work, lasting over 90 minutes (excluding the interval). It requires a large choir (well over a hundred voices last night) as well as large orchestral forces, including two harps and a big brass section. I’m sure it’s a handful to perform, but last night’s concert was well-controlled and at times simply beautiful.

It’s basically a setting of a long poem, describing the journey of a dying man towards death. It takes a very Roman-Catholic view of Paradise, Purgatory, and the Last Judgement and this may have contributed to its initial lack of popularity in (Protestant) England; it found greater favour in Germany in the years after its first performance.

I’m actually not the biggest fan of Elgar, generally speaking. He’s often very rhythmically unimaginative and predictable, as in the opening passage of Part 1 in last night’s performance which plodded along for a quite a while before getting going. However, there are some thrilling passages too. This work does sound surprisingly modern at times and at others is very reminiscent of Richard Strauss, at least to my ears.

Anyway, an excellent performance of a profound and challenging work. I’m glad to say that it attracted a full house too, though the majority of the audience were (like me) not in the first flush of youth..

P.S. I texted a friend that I was at The Dream of Gerontius, but autocorrect turned it into The Dream of Geronimo. As far as I know there’s no choral work with that title, but perhaps there should be!

Being Both

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , , on May 15, 2015 by telescoper

My third consecutive Brighton Festival event of the week was Being Both, which featured mezzo soprano Alice Coote along with the English Concert under the direction of Harry Bicket (at the dreaded harpsichord). The music for the evening was all provided by George Frideric Handel in the form of a wide selection of arias from his operas and oratorios. It wasn’t just a concert, though. Alice Coote acted as well as sang, and various props and visual references supplemented her performance. There were also few extras who spent most of the show painting a slogan on a screen behind the orchestra: “You who are more than one thing, You who exceed expectations”. I added the comma myself.

When Handel was writing operas it was pretty typical for the heroic male lead to be played by a castrato, so these parts were scored for rather high voices. It was only much later in the history of opera that these roles became associated with tenor voices. The register in which a castrato would naturally sing is somewhere around that of a female contralto or mezzo soprano or a male counter-tenor. Modern stagings of Handel’s operas therefore tend to cast the leading make character either as a counter-tenor (male), as a “trouser role” for a female singer, or simply as a female character with no attempt to disguise the singer’s gender. The latter option can be extremely interesting as it allows the production to cast an interesting light on the way gender influences our preconceptions about character. In Being Both we saw Alice Coote singing some roles that were intended to be sung by male artists and others by female artists; since it was the person singing and “being” both it successfully blurred the distinction between these roles as well as poking a bit of fun at the dated attitudes represented in the texts.

The best part of the performance was Alice Coote. She has a gorgeous voice and commanded the stage in superb style. As for the English Concert, I was alarmed by some truly awful horn playing in the opening number, but the brass section wasn’t used at all after that and the remainder of the orchestra (mainly strings) played pretty well. It’s the “semi-staging” that troubled me most. The use of props was unsubtle and gimmicky and the overall feel of the production rather pretentious. I found the slow painting of the slogan behind the orchestra a distraction both from Alice Coote’s performance and for the music. It seemed to me to be saying “if you’re not enjoying the show why not watch some paint dry as an alternative?”

Wonderful artist though Alice Coote is, I did find myself wishing for a bit more variety in the vocal parts. Handel’s operas involve an enormous range of contrasts in different combinations of different voices. Hearing a series of excerpts all performed in the same register by the same artist robs the works of the dramatic interplay that makes Handel’s operas and oratiorios so special. I suppose that just tells you that I find an proper Opera a much more interesting experience than a string of arias performed out of context.


Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on May 20, 2014 by telescoper

For my second experience of this year’s Brighton Festival I went last night to the Brighton Dome Concert Hall to see a show called KlezMahler. I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for when I turned up but it turned out to be great fun and I’m glad I went.

The first half of the concert featured the Aurora Orchestra. Their main item was Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler. I’ve heard this symphony played live before, but not quite like this. The Aurora Orchestra numbers only fifteen musicians: two violins, and one each of viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp, timpani and percussion. The arrangement for this “Chamber Orchestra” was done by Ian Farrington.

The result was fascinating and illuminating. Gone of course were the lush string textures and towering crescendi of a full symphony orchestra. A small force simply can’t hope to generate that kind of experience. On the other hand, what one gets in compensation is the ability to hear much more clearly how the piece is put together because everything is so much crisper. It must be very demanding to play a symphony like this, as each invidual instrument is very exposed, but these musicians have a very good account of the work. In places I found myself uncomfortable with the balance between different sections and the lack of oomph sometimes made it all sound rather tinny, but by and large I found it very interesting. I still prefer the bigger orchestral sound, but I did learn a lot from this “Mahler Light” arrangement. It was, however, a bit like being presented with an X-ray when you thought you were going to get a photograph!

The third movement of Mahler’s first symphony includes a section in which he produces the sound of a Jewish Klezmer band, which gives a hint as to how this piece fits in with the rest of the programme. Preceding Mahler 1 in the first half of the concert was a piece for solo clarinet (Fantasie by Widmann) and a traditional Doina from Romania (a form of improvised funereal lament) again played on a solo clarinet, this time situated offstage in the circle. The latter piece was particularly moving and well played.

After the interval we heard the She’Koyokh Klezmer Music Ensemble, who treated us to some traditional Klezmer music as well as other folk music from Eastern Europe. In fact their opening number, if I recall correctly, was from Turkey and it featured the very distinctive vocal style of Sigem Aslan. They played with great veuve and vitality and not inconsiderable virtuosity too. There was even an audience singalong in the middle. Some way into their set they were joined by members of the Aurora Orchestra. I felt that adding more musicians had the effect of somehow diffusing the impact of the original band, giving it a little less bite. That’s not to say however that the music wasn’t enjoyable because it certainly was!

There’s a taster of their style on this video:

It’s probably now obvious what the idea behind the concert was. Here it is as stated in the programme:

Iain Farrington’s dazzling chamber orchestra arrangement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, placed alongside a selection of klezmer and folk music performed by members of Aurora and She’koyokh, reveals the musical influences and inspirations behind Mahler’s masterpiece with new clarity. This will be an evening of insight and inspiration, eloquence and exuberance.

For my money it certainly succeeded in its aim. Bravo KlezMahler!


Incidentally, as a Jazz fan, I’ve often wondered about the influence that Klezmer might have had on the musical development of clarinettists like Benny Goodman. Here’s an example of his playing when he was young:

The opening of this does sound to me very Klezmery. What do you think?



The Tempest in Musick

Posted in Brighton, Literature, Music with tags , , , , , , , on May 17, 2014 by telescoper

I haven’t done a music review type of thing on this blog for some time, for the simple reason that I haven’t had the time to go to many live music events recently. However, this being Festival time in Brighton I felt I should make an extra-special effort to take a bit of time out to take in a bit of culture. All work and no play and all that.

Anyway, yesterday evening found me in the Concert Hall of the Brighton Dome for a performance entitled The Tempest in Musick by the New London Consort. The programme for the show featured all the music written for the 17th and early 18th century revivals of William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. That in itself tells an interesting story. In 1667, after the Restoration of the Monarchy, John Dryden and Willian Davenant put together an enlarged and adapted version of Shakespeare’s play with a host of new characters and numerous musical interludes and additions. This piece was later revised further  aa number of times, each including even more music, a process which culminated in a semi-operatic version compiled by Thomas Shadwell in 1674. As if Shakespeare’s original tale were not exotic enough, these new versions had extra devils, Tritons, and Nereids along with spectacular stage effects and costumes. London audiences clearly wanted to let their hair down after the severe restrictions on popular entertainment imposed by Puritans during the Protectorate. The Shadwell version was the top show in London for over fifty years: it ran from 1674 until 1728, until it was eventually replaced in popularity by The Beggar’s Opera.

In the concert we heard most if not all of the music that survives from the multiple revivals and revisions of the Tempest, written by various composers over the period 1667 to 1712, including a setting of “Dear pretty youth” by Henry Purcell dated to 1695. There were two different versions of the most famous song from the original play, Full Fathom Five, sung by Ariel:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell

Of course the New London Consort play using period instruments, which gives me an excuse to post this again:


I’m not a fan of period instruments generally, but because of the historical interest in the music I thought I’d give it a go. I had grave misgivings when I saw that the musicians were to be directed by David Roblou from a harpsichord, but decided to grit my teeth and perservere instead of fleeing to the nearest pub.

As it happened, although it was good in parts, the concert basically just confirmed my prejudices. To start with, much of the music is very ordinary and the musicians for the most part failed to bring it to life. The strings, played without vibrato throughout and occasionally rather ragged to boot, didn’t produce much in the way of colour or dynamics; this way of playing also exposed their uncertain pitching. The recorders, a long way from the audience right at the back of the stage, found it difficult to project. They would have been much better off in a smaller venue, I think, especially because of the large gap between audience and stage left for standing customers (of whom there were very few). The dreaded harpsichord was barely audible too. Not that I’m complaining about that.

On the other hand there was some brilliant trumpet playing by Simon Munday on a period instrument. Also I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard a Serpent played and I really enjoyed hearing it. Apart from these highlights though I found the music rather undistinguished and the performance curiously flat.

The singing was much better: the three lovely female voices (Anna Dennis, Faye Newton and Penelope Appleyard) are worth mentioning and tenor Jorge Navarro-Colorado sang well and was a striking presence on stage during the occasional semi-staged pieces. I wasn’t that keen on any of the bass-baritones though.

I realise that there will probably be early music fans out there who would have loved last night’s performance. That’s fine of course. Les gouts et les couleurs ne se discutent pas.