Archive for Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

Prokofiev, Grieg and Beethoven at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2018 by telescoper

This afternoon found me once again at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, waiting for a concert to start.

This time it was the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Tomáš Hanus. And very enjoyable it was.

The first number was a bit of a taster for the forthcoming WNO season, which includes Prokofiev’s War and Peace and Rossini’s Lá Cenerentola. The latter being the story of Cinderella, it made sense to include Prokofiev’s Cinderella Suite from the ballet he wrote in the 1940s.

After that we had the evergreen Grieg’s Piano Concerto, by Grieg, played by the excellent Peter Donohoe, exactly how I like it: with all the right notes in the right order, and the Orchestra not too heavy on the banjoes.

Following the wine break we had Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a work which has to be one of his most uplifting pieces. Beethoven was very good at ‘uplifting’ so that means it is very special indeed.

A lovely concert, warmly received by the audience and a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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The WNO Orchestra at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on January 15, 2018 by telescoper

It has been a very busy weekend but yesterday afternoon I took time out to visit St David’s Hall in Cardiff to hear the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera conducted by Tomáš Hanus in a programme of music by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Dvořák. I’ve noticed that many of the international concerts that are a regular part of Cardiff life have been moved from weekday evenings to weekend afternoons. No doubt that it is for commercial reasons. I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of matinee concerts, but as it happens I’m not going to be available for many of the weekday evening concerts for the foreseeable future so I thought I’d give this one a go. The programme was a middle-of-the-road bums-on-seats affair, but if it brings people into the concert hall that is a good thing and it was nice to see a big crowd, including a sizeable contingent of schoolchildren, there to enjoy the show.

First up we had a favourite piece of mine, Beethoven’s  Egmont overture, inspired by the story of Lamoral, Count of Egmont whose execution in 1568 sparked an uprising Spanish occupation that eventually led to the independence of the Netherlands. It’s a stirring, dramatic work, ideal for opening a concert programme. I thought the tempo was a bit slow at the start, which made increase in speed towards the end a little jarring, but otherwise it was well played the full orchestra, arranged with six double-basses right at the back of the stage facing the conductor with the brass either side. That was very effective at generating a rich dark sonority both in this piece and in the Dvořák later on.

The next item was a very familiar work indeed, the Violin Concerto in E minor by Felix Mendelssohn. This is perhaps best known for its lvoely second movement (in which they key changes to C major) but the other two movements are really innovative and virtuosic. In the wrong hands the slow movement can be horribly schmaltzy but Norwegian soloist Henning Kraggerud managed to bring out is beauty without wallowing in its romanticism. It was a very fine performance, warmly appreciated by the audience. Henning Kraggerud treated us to an encore in the form of an intruguing piece by a musician previously unknown to me, Olof Bull, a fellow Norwegian and a contemporary of Mendelssohn.

After the wine break the main event of was another familiar piece, the Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) by Antonín Dvořák, a piece full of nostalgia for his Czech homeland written while the composer was living in America. It’s a piece I’ve heard very many times but it still manages to stay fresh, and yesterday’s performance was full of colour of verve. Tomáš Hanus (himself Czech) chose this piece as a tribute to an old friend who passed away last year, and it was was played with great passion.

I’d heard all the pieces in this programme many times, both in concert and on record, but they all stand up to repeated listening, simply because they’re so very good. I do like to hear new works – and do wish the programming at St David’s Hall were a little more adventurous – but they do have to make ends meet and there’s in any case much to enjoy in the standard repertoire, especially when it’s played by a fine orchestra. Such pieces can fall flat when you get the feeling that the musicians themselves are a bit bored with them, but that emphatically wasn’t the case yesterday.

It will soon be time to Welsh National Opera’s new season, with a new production of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino alongside revivals of Tosca and Don Giovanni. It’s going to be tricky to see them all, but I’ll give it a go!

The Leningrad Symphony

Posted in History, Music with tags , , , , , , , on November 24, 2017 by telescoper

Last night I went with a group of friends and colleagues to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for concert that I had been looking forward to for some time, featuring the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the baton of WNO’s Music Director Tomáš Hanus in a programme of music by Mahler and Shostakovich. It turned out to be no disappointment!

Before the interval the Orchestra was joined by young mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught for the song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen by Gustav Mahler, featuring settings of four poems written by the composer (though clearly influenced by other sources). The four pieces are of contrasting mood, with the second being the most upbeat and the third the most despairing (as well as the most operatic in style) and they were written in response to an unrequited passion. I thought Tara Erraught sang very beautifully indeed, bring out the emotional depths of this piece. Unusually for Mahler, the orchestra for this work was not excessively large, and a good balance with the solo voice was achieved that allowed the subtleties of both vocal and orchestral parts to be enjoyed to full effect.

After the interval the stage was much fuller as the orchestral forces required for the second work were much larger. Symphony No. 7 by Dmitri Shostakovich (“Leningrad”) is a piece that evokes particular memories for me as I first heard it about thirty years ago on the radio while sitting in a car that was driving through a torrential downpour in the middle of the night from Kansas City to Lawrence. The repeating theme and snare drum figures in the 1st Movement that represent the remorseless advance of the invading army had even more powerful affect when accompanied by the incessant driving rain. I’ve heard this piece on recordings and live broadcasts on many occasions since then, but have never heard it performed live until last night.

Shostakovich in a fireman’s uniform in Leningrad, 1941

What can I say about this work? Well, not much that hasn’t been said before. It was dedicated to the city of Leningrad where the composer lived, until he was evacuated during the siege,  and where he wrote most of the 7th Symphony. He served as a volunteer fireman in Leningrad during the early part of the Second World War (see above), having been turned down for military service owing to his poor eyesight. Leningrad was besieged by German forces for almost 900 days, from September 1941 until January 1944, and it’s impossible not to see the work in this historical context.

 

Though the four movements have themes – `War’, `Memories’, `My Native Field’ and `Victory’ – this is not really a programmatic piece. It does, however, succeed in invoking the terror and brutality of armed conflict in a manner that is so compelling that it’s almost overpowering. Many symphonies have as a theme some kind of struggle between light and dark, or between good and evil, but it always seemed to me that this work is not so much like that as it is a representation of a struggle simply for survival against annihilation. Even the end of the intense fourth movement, when the music finally resolves into the key of C Major, suggesting a kind of `victory’, echoes of the previous conflict persist, suggesting (to me) that this particular battle does not intend in any kind of triumph but in a sense of grim endurance that is more resignation than resolution.

Musicologists tend not to like this Symphony and its reputation dwindled in the West in the post-War period. Maybe it is true that it has defects when thought of as an exercise in composition, but fortunately I am not a professional critic so I am quite content to say that for me, personally, this work has an emotional impact like few others and it is one of my favourites in the whole symphonic repertoire. Last night the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera delivered an impassioned performance that confirmed everything I felt about this work but with the added dimensions that you can only get from a live performance.

From the immaculately controlled crescendo representing the advancing invaders that erupts into a nightmarish depiction of the ensuing battle right through to the last movement with its ending in resolution tempered in bitterness and regret, this performance had me gripped. The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera played as if their lives depended on it, and the climactic moments were authentically terrifying and, it goes without saying, wonderfully loud. Many congratulations to Tomáš Hanus for inspiring his musicians to such heights. He looked absolutely drained at the end, as he acknowledged the applause of a very appreciative audience in St David’s Hall.

It’s a shame that there were so many empty seats. That often seems to be the case when the music is relatively `modern’. The Cardiff audience does seem to have rather conservative tastes in that way. On the way out of the Hall after the performance all the comments I heard – and those afterwards on Twitter – were overwhelmingly enthusiastic. I feel privileged to have been among those present at this thrilling event.

UPDATE: I didn’t realise it was being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is now available on iPlayer here for you to share the experience!

Handel’s Messiah

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on December 14, 2016 by telescoper

A performance of Handel‘s Messiah at St David’s Hall is always a pretty sure sign that the Christmas season is upon us, although the work itself was actually first performed at Easter and it’s by no means clear why it ended up being so strongly associated with this time of year. Whatever the reason I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me – some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, over 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young. It’s actually been far too long – six years in fact – since I last went to a performance of Messiah (in the same venue) so  I relished the chance to hear it again.

Messiah is the most frequently performed choral work in the entire repertoire, and so much has been said and written about it already that I’m not going to say much about here, except for one thing  that struck me about it last night that I hadn’t thought about before which makes it quite an unusual work: unlike most other oratorios I’ve heard, the four vocalists are not associated with specific characters or roles. The reason for that is that the work spans the entire biblical story of the Messiah, from Old Testament prophecy to the Nativity (Part 1) , the Passion of Christ (Part II, culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus), and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part III). The Nativity only features (briefly) in Part I, which is why it’s a little curious that Messiah is so strongly associated with Christmas.

Last night’s performance involved the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera (conducted by Adrian Partington) and the BBC National Chorus of Wales (including Ed’s sister) with soloists Soraya Mafi (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo), Ben Johnson (tenor) and James Platt (bass). Handel’s original scoring was for a relatively small orchestra and chorus but over the years it has become fashionable to perform it with larger forces. Last night the orchestra was modest in size, but the BBC National Chorus of Wales was more-or-less at full strength. There was a harpsichord.

I felt it took both the orchestra and the chorus a little while to warm up: the strings were a little ragged during the opening Sinfony and, early on,  the large choir seem to lack the sharpness  one might have expected given the very high standards to which they usually perform. Once they got into their stride, however, they were really excellent and Parts II and III (after the interval) were superb throughout. I can see the attraction of using smaller forces for this work, actually, because it’s much easier to bring a smaller choir into a tight focus. One the other hand, the larger choir makes the louder moments (such as the Hallelujah Chorus, for which as usual the audience stood) absolutely thrilling. It’s worth mentioning also that the orchestra expanded a little bit for Parts II and III – no brass or percussion are used in Part I – but trumpets and timpani appeared after the interval. I’d like to pick out the percussionist Patrick King (although to be honest his beard needs a bit more work) and the principal trumpet Dean Wright (whose brilliant solo playing during “The trumpet shall sound”” was absolutely thrilling when juxtaposed with the splendidly deep sonority of James Platt’s bass voice (whose beard is magnificent). I also enjoyed the crystal clarity and wonderful agility of soprano Soraya Mafi, especially on “I know that my redeemer liveth“.

All in all, it was a hugely enjoyable evening at St David’s Hall, which was so busy it seemed to take an age to get out at the end of the performance! The concert was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Monday 19th December at 7.30, so you can listen to it yourself and make your own mind up whether my comments above are fair.

Well, that will be the last of my concert-going for 2016 so I’d just like to thank all the musicians and singers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to since I returned to Cardiff for  shining some much-needed light into what has otherwise been a very gloomy year.

 

 

 

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”)

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2016 by telescoper

Last night I was at St David’s Hall in Cardiff yet again, this time for a piece that I’ve never heard in a live performance: Symphony No.2 (“Resurrection”) by Gustav Mahler. This is a colossal work, in five movements, that lasts about 90 minutes. The performance involved not only a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, but also two solo vocalists and a sizeable choir (although the choir does not make its entrance until the start of the long final movement, about an hour into the piece). In my seat before the concert I was particularly struck by the size of the brass section of the orchestra, but it turned out to be even larger than it looked as there were three trumpets and three French horns hidden offstage in the wings for most of the performance – they joined the rest of the orchestra onstage for the finale.

The musicians involved last night were the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, and the Welsh National Opera Community Choir, conducted by Tomáš Hanus who is the new music director of Welsh National Opera; this was his St David’s Hall debut. Soloists were soprano Rebecca Evans (who was born in Pontrhydyfen, near Neath, and is a local favourite at St David’s Hall) and mezzosoprano Karen Cargill (making her St David’s debut).

I don’t really have the words to describe what a stunning musical experience this was. I was gripped all the way through, from the relatively sombre but subtly expressive opening movement through the joyously dancing second movement that recalls happier times, the third which is based on a Jewish folk tune and which ends in a shattering climax Mahler described as “a shriek of despair”, the fourth movement is built around a setting of one of the songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, sung beautifully by Karen Cargill who has a lovely velvety voice very well suited to this piece, which seems more like a contralto part than a mezzo. The changing moods of the work are underlined by a tonality that shifts from minor to major and back again. All that was wonderfully performed, but it was in the climactic final movement – which lasts almost half an hour and is based on setting of a poem mostly written by Mahler himself, sung by Rebecca Evans, that what was already a very good concert turned into something truly remarkable.

On many occasions I’ve written about Welsh National Opera performances in the opera theatre and in the course of doing so I’ve very often mentioned the superb WNO Chorus. They weren’t called upon until the final movement, but as soon as they started to sing they lifted the concert to another level. At first they sang sitting down, which struck me as a little strange, but later on I realised that they were holding something in reserve for the final moments of the work. As the symphony moved inexorably towards its climax I noticed the offstage brass players coming onto the stage, the choir standing up, and the organist (who had been sitting patiently with nothing to for most of the performance) took his seat. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up in anticipation of a thrilling sound to come. I wasn’t disappointed. The final stages of this piece are sublime, jubilant, shattering, transcendent but, above all, magnificently, exquisitely loud! The WNO Chorus, responding in appropriate fashion to Mahler’s instruction to sing “”mit höchster Kraft” combined with the full force of the Orchestra and the St David’s Hall organ to create an overwhelming wall of radiant sound. Superb.

Mahler himself wrote of the final movement: “The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.” Well, who knows where genius comes from, but Mahler was undoubtedly a genius. People often stay that his compositions are miserable, angst-ridden and depressing. I don’t find that at all. It’s true that this, as well as Mahler’s other great works, takes you on an emotional journey that is at times a difficult one. There are passages that are filled with apprehension or even dread. But without darkness there is no light. The ending of the Resurrection Symphony is all the more triumphant because of what has come before.

The end of the performance was greeted with rapturous applause (and a well-deserved standing ovation). Congratulations to Tomáš Hanus, Karen Cargill, Rebecca Evans and all the musicians who took part in last night’s concert which is one that I’ll remember for a very long time.

P.S. You might be interested to know that St David’s Hall has been ranked in the world’s Top Ten Concert Halls in terms of sound quality. Those of us lucky enough to live in or near Cardiff are blessed to have such a great venue and so many superb great concerts right on our doorstep!

P.P.S. The concert got a five-star review in the Guardian.

Stravinsky, Dutilleux and Beethoven at RWCMD

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on June 30, 2012 by telescoper

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that, although I’ve lived in Cardiff for almost five years now, last night was the first time I’ve ever been inside the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which is situated by the side of Bute Park. The occasion that took me there was a concert in the fine Dora Stoutzker Hall by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera  under the baton of Lothar Koenigs. When I arrived for a quick glass of wine before the concert there was some nice jazz playing in the lobby which made me which I’d got there sooner, but that wouldn’t have been possible because there was a leaving do had to attend beforehand. I didn’t catch the names of the musicians but I guess they were students from the College.

Anyway, the first half of the programme for the evening consisted of a short piece called Ragtime by Igor Stravinsky and a longer suite called Mystère de l’instant by Henri Dutilleux. The first item was played by a small subset of the Orchestra and involved only 11 instruments, including a cymbalom. Written around 1918, Ragtime is Stravinsky’s personal reaction to his experience of American popular music. It’s a quirky and entertaining piece, clearly influenced by ragtime and jazz, especially in Stravinsky’s deployment of  lots of interesting rhythmic devices, whilst remaining quintessentially Stravinsky.

After a bit of reorganization of the stage a larger section of the orchestra, still including the cimbalom, returned to play the Dutilleux piece.  This was another work that was new to me. I found it absolutely gripping. It consists of a series 10 relatively short pieces played without interruption, each of which has its own distinct identity. Overall, this work put my in mind of a gallery full  abstract paintings, each having it’s own palette and texture, and the whole effect being rather cryptic and undefinable. You can actually hear a performance on Youtube here, which I heartily recommend if you’ve never heard this work in full before.

The hall at RWCMD is much smaller that at St David’s and with a seat just a few rows back from the stage I had no difficulty reading the music the violinists were playing. It’s clearly a very demanding work, pushing the limits of not only the string instruments but also the rest of orchestra. When the interval arrived I nipped to the gents for some much-needed micturition and found two of the musicians doing the same thing. I asked if the piece was as difficult to play as it looked from the music. He said “yes”…

One of the excellent things about Lothar Koenig’s choice of programme for the Orchestra of WNO is that he’s very good at choosing contrasting pieces that work very well together. After the interval we returned to a much more familiar work, the Symphony No. 4 in B flat Op. 60 by Ludwig van Beethoven. This piece is much better known than the others we heard last night but it’s worth saying a couple of things about it. The first is that Beethoven wrote it extremely quickly, over a few months in 1806. I find that pretty astonishing in itself for such a beautifully crafted piece. The other thing is that its opening – an elegaic Adagio passage – would have seemed very unconventional at the time it was written, even more so because it suddenly leaps into a jaunty Allegro for the rest of the first movement. There’s a tranquil Adagio second movement, but the rest of the symphony is filled with that sense of purposeful exuberance in which Beethoven was something of a specialist.

The 4th Symphony isn’t as well known as the 3rd and the 5th, perhaps because it’s a bit less fiery, but the full Orchestra of Welsh National Opera gave it the  vigorous and characterful performance it deserves, while the rest of the programme reminded us that classical music didn’t end with Beethoven!

And that was the end of a very enjoyable evening. Leaving the RWCMD I discovered that the gate into Bute Park was still open – the gates usually close at twilight – so I was able to take the short cut home to Pontcanna.

Gershwin, Adams & Rachmaninov

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday (Friday) being the last day of (relative) freedom before teaching resumes on Monday I took the opportunity to go to a concert by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera at the splendid St David’s Hall in Cardiff. I had been looking forward to it for some time, as the programme featured two favourite pieces of mine, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and John Adams’ The Chairman Dances (A Foxtrot for Orchestra), plus one longer piece that I’ve never heard live before, Symphony No. 2 (in E minor) by Sergei Rachmaninov.

There was a good crowd in St David’s last night, not surprisingly given the popularity of the pieces being performed. Conductor for the evening was Frédéric Chaslin, who led the orchestra from the piano during the opening number, Rhapsody in Blue. This is a very famous piece, and is played so often that it is in danger of becoming a bit of a cliché, especially when classical orchestras try too hard to sound like jazz musician; the piece was originally written for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. A case in point is the opening clarinet solo, which is often played like a ham-fisted parody. Not last night, though. Principal clarinettist of WNO Leslie Craven gave a very characterful rendition of the notoriously tricky opening, which seemed to inspire the orchestra into an excellent all-round performance. I particularly enjoyed seeing the cello section slapping the strings of their instruments much as a jazz-era double-bass player would.

Chaslin gave an idiosyncratic account of the piano part, to the extent that in the final solo passage before the finale he departed from the script entirely and interpolated an improvised section all of his own. Not everyone in the audience approved – there were a few tuts behind me – but it’s a piece undoubtedly inspired by jazz, so I don’t see anything wrong with doing this. I thought his ad-libbing was charming, and very witty. What I wasn’t so happy about were the changes in tempo, which were too exaggerated. I suppose conducting from the piano means you can do whatever you want, but I think he took the rubato too far. Some sections rely on strict rhythm for their sense of urgency, and I felt he got bogged down a bit in places. Still, on balance, it was very refreshing to hear an orchestra trying to do something different. Nothing hackneyed about last night’s performance, that’s for sure.

Next one up was The Chairman Dances by John Adams. This isn’t actually in the opera Nixon in China, which is what a lot of people seem to think. It was composed at the same time, but cut out and developed as a standalone concert piece. I posted a recording of this yesterday, so won’t say too much today, except that I thoroughly enjoyed my first live experience of this work. So did the orchestra by the look of it! It’s a hugely entertaining piece and had many in the audience tapping their feet along with it. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t have minded getting up and dancing along myself..

Special mention has to go the percussion section of the orchestra for doing such an excellent job. The four xylophones were  a delight to listen to, and the drums, temple blocks, triangles and assorted ironmongery coped brilliantly with the intricate polyrhythms.

Then it was the interval, and a glass of wine before returing to savour the main piece of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. It’s a remarkable work because it’s not only a “proper” symphony in its construction and development but also the best part of an hour of one glorious melody after another. Rachmaninov’s music is not really very much like Mozart, but they certainly had a similar ear for the Big Tune! I particularly loved the third movement (Adagio), but I thought it was a magnificent performance throughout, not least because you could see how much both conductor and orchestra were enjoying themselves.

The end of the concert was met with rapturous applause from the (normally rather reticent) St Davids audience. Now I have to find the best recording I can of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony so I can enjoy it again. Any suggestions?