Archive for Sarah Connolly

The Firebird (and more) at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on October 18, 2016 by telescoper

Just a quick note to catch up on concert-going activities from last week, as for various reasons I had to skip a few days of blogging…

Last Thursday night (13th October) I was lucky enough to attend a tremendous concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff featuring the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thomas Søndergård at the start of their 2016/7 season. The main item on the bill was the complete score for Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. This is a thrillingly piece, involving a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, including some positioned away from the rest of the orchestra. In a performance of the ballet the main orchestra would be in the pit, not on the stage, and the musicians offstage in the concert would be onstage with the dancers. If you see what I mean.

The orchestration of The Firebird is a tour de force: intricate but vividly coloured, full of excitement and colour and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales played it with great passion and aplomb. A really brilliant performance.

The Firebird filled the second half of the programme. In the first half we heard three pieces by French composers: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy; the three songs from Shéhérazade by Maurice Ravel, sung by the inestimable Sarah Connolly; and  the Flute Concerto by Jacques Ibert played by Emily Beynon. The first two pieces are fairly standard in the concert repertoire, but the last one was completely new to me. The last piece is very fine indeed, consisting of two dazzlingly virtuosic faster movements (Allegro and Allegro Scherzando) either side of a lyrical Andante. The orchestra was somewhat pared down for this part of the concert, but it’s nevertheless a piece of substantial weight and harmonic complexity. Hats off to Emily Beynon and the BBC NOW for a wonderful introduction to this work.

What a rich and varied programme for a single concert, all wonderfully played. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest of the season!



Ein deutsches Requiem

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on October 29, 2011 by telescoper

Last night was time for another injection of culture, so I went again to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a programme of music played by the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera conducted by musical director Lothar Koenigs.

The first item on the programme was the set of five Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children) by Gustav Mahler, settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert drawn from a huge collection of tragic verse the poet produced in reaction to the death of his children from scarlet fever. Mahler’s daughter Maria herself suffered the same fate in 1909, four years after the first performance of the Kindertotenlieder. Of course these works are immensely poignant, but the pervading atmosphere is not just of  melancholy but also of resignation. The soloist last night was mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly who gave a performance of great dignity and emotional power. She has a simply gorgeous voice, with lovely velvety chest tones as well as strength and clarity in the upper register. She looked the part too, her facial expressions adding to the sense of tragedy underlying the music. One for Mahler fans only, I suspect, but I loved it.

The next piece before the interval was quite new to me, A Survivor from Warsaw, written by Arnold Schoenberg in 1947 as a reaction to the persecution of jews in the Warsaw ghetto. In addition to the orchestra this work features a male chorus and a narrator (WNO regular David Soar) who recounts the story of a massacre in the declamatory Sprechstimme that Schoenberg used in several works. I was surprised to learn from the programme that the narration was actually written in English (as it was performed last night), but I don’t think the texture of the English language really suits this style of vocalisation. The male chorus sings a setting of the Shema Yisrael amidst sounds representing the violence of the attacking soldiers. The music is rigorously atonal: disturbing, agonized and entirely appropriate to the subject. Not exactly easy listening, but why on Earth should it be?

After the interval we heard the main piece of the evening, Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) by Johannes Brahms. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will know that I’m not exactly a devout follower of Brahms, but he is a composer I somehow feel I ought to persevere with. The German Requiem is, like the preceding pieces, a reaction to loss; in this case it was probably the deaths of Brahms’ mother and of his friend Robert Schumman that led Brahms to compose the work. It’s not a traditional Requiem, in the sense of being a liturgical setting, but it does take its text from the scriptures. It’s also a very large work, comprising seven movements lasting well over an hour altogether, and is Brahms’ longest composition. Soloists were David Soar (bass-baritone) and Laura Mitchell (soprano); the latter wore a white dress and black shoes to the consternation of the fashion-conscious members of the audience. Apparently that’s a no-no.

This is not a work that I’m familiar with amd it’s such a long piece that it’s difficult to take it all in during one performance. Inevitably, therefore, there are parts that stand out in my memory better than others. The orchestral playing was very tight, full of colour, and never lost momentum. However, I would say that the Chorus of Welsh National Opera were absolutely magnificent; the dramatic intensity they achieved during the crescendi in the 2nd movement (Denn alles Fleisch, with text drawn from Psalm 126) definitely raised the hairs on the back of my neck. That alone was enough to make me want to listen to this again.  I’d therefore like to ask any readers of this blog please to help by suggesting good recordings of this work through the Comments box.

Here’s a version of the 2nd Movement I found on youtube, just to give you an idea of its sombre majesty, but last night’s rendition was better. Try to imagine what the crescendo that grows from about 3.00 sounds like live…

Ariadne auf Naxos

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on October 8, 2010 by telescoper

There are three operas in the current season from Welsh National Opera, and last night I went to see the final one of the set,   a revival of their 2004 production of Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. It seems I saved the best until last! It was a wonderful evening, beautifully sung and imaginatively staged.

It’s a strange opera, consisting of two acts. The first is a prologue, set backstage during the preparations for  a musical performance commissioned by the “wealthiest man in Vienna”, a character who never actually makes an appearance but who communicates with the others through his Major-Domo (a speaking role, played by Eric Roberts).  The centrepiece of the performance is to be a new opera, the tragedy of Ariadne on the Island of Naxos, written by a gifted young composer (played in male drag by the lovely Sarah Connolly). Afraid that the opera might bore his guests, the patron decides to liven up the performance by adding a musical comedy act, in the style of the Commedia dell’Arte, and a firework display. While the opera singers argue with assorted clowns and grotesques of the rival Harlequinade about who should perform first, news comes down from on high that in order that the fireworks are not delayed, instead of performing one after the other, the two performances will be merged. The upshot of this is that instead of being marooned on a desert island with only three nymphs for company, the lovelorn Ariadne has to put up with the presence of the entire cast of a comic burlesque.

In case you hadn’t figured it out, this is a comedy. It’s very German, of course, in the sense that it’s not all that funny really, but the set up does pay off in the second act, wherein the comedy and tragedy (or, more precisely, an Opera Buffa and an Opera Seria) are played together. It’s a bit like the “play-within-a-play” in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

First Ariadne (played by Orla Boylan) appears on her island, singing of her desire for death after the loss of her beloved Theseus. Then the clowns interrupt the performance and try to cheer her up, by suggesting she finds another man. Then the comics take over the show entirely, at least for a while. Finally Ariadne reappears and is met by Bacchus, the god of wine, who brings much-needed consolation. The two sing a rapturous duet and eventually ascend to heaven, in a style reminiscent of Close Encounters, while the clowns look on from the wings.

It’s all a bit daft, of course, but the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy is unexpectedly moving. It works largely because of the sheer beauty of Strauss’ music, especially in the second act. People who don’t like opera probably don’t understand how it’s possibly to fall into such a stylised form of drama in which people sing to each other rather than speak, but somehow – at least for me – that’s what happens. Something draws you into the drama and you forget the artificiality of the performance. That it works in this opera is especially surprising because it’s  a second-order opera; the audience knows it’s an opera, but within the opera there’s another opera. Nevertheless, the sensuously romantic score still pulls you in, especially in the scenes with Ariadne. Strauss was always a superb writer for the female voice, and this opera is no exception.

Last night’s performance was lovely, with Sarah Connolly and   Orla Boylan both oustanding. Boyland in particular was simply superb, a true dramatic soprano with a voice of great lyrical beauty as well as  thrilling power when needed. I was expecting Sarah Connolly to be great, and she didn’t disappoint at all, but Orla Boylan was even better. 10/10.

The only part I didn’t like was the Wig-Maker, a crude gay stereotype mincing ostentatiously around the stage during the Prologue. Very naff.

Oh, and Eric Roberts as the Major-Domo seemed to get a bit confused in a couple of places and repeated his lines, sending the surtitle machine into chaos for a bit. Even though the performance was in German I didn’t really look at the surtitles. When you wear varifocals it’s quite difficult to read them without missing out on what’s happening on stage.

These were only minor blemishes, however, and overall it was a wonderful evening. I’ll add a word for the orchestra too, which played beautifully under the baton of Lothar Koenigs.

There’s only one other performance of this in Cardiff, tomorrow night (Saturday 9th October). Do go and see it if you can!