I was so pleased to return to Worcester Cathedral on 10 December to perform the alto solos in Handel’s Messiah with the welcoming Worcester Festival Choral Society. The performance featured the Meridian Sinfonia orchestra playing period instruments, and my soloist colleagues Lucy Bowen, Nathan Vale and Quentin Hayes. Peter Nardone, Organist & Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral, conducted.
My family lived in Lancaster when I was growing up: my father was Head of Music at Lancaster University, running a department which has alas since been closed. There was a lot of good music-making in the area, including by the Haffner Orchestra, which my father even conducted for a time.
It therefore felt rather special to be invited to return to Lancaster to sing Elgar’s Sea Pictures with the orchestra as part of its fortieth anniversary celebrations. Conductor Justin Doyle – a fellow Lancastrian with whom I have done a lot of music-making in London – was giving his final concert with the Haffner, having recently been appointed Chief Conductor of the RIAS Kammerchor in Berlin, and Julian Cann, with whom I was briefly at school in Lancaster is the orchestra’s Leader.
Edward Cowie, who was appointed by my father as Composer in Residence at Lancaster many years ago, was commissioned to write a new work, Tide in Knots, to mark the Haffner’s birthday. Edward is a visual artist as well as a musical one and an exhibition of his works on paper was on show in the University gallery.
It was an exceptionally happy concert, and my parents (who have long since moved East) were warmly welcomed back by local friends and colleagues. A packed house duly cheered the orchestra’s fine achievement not just on the night, but over the last forty years.
In July I gave the first performance of the complete Artemisia, a song-cycle for voice and string trio by Paul Ayres. It sets poems by Sue Powell and tells the story of the life and art of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the earliest women painters to establish a lasting reputation.
Above is the video of La Giuditta, the song about the making of Artemisia’s famous painting Judith slaying Holofernes.
Piano accompaniment is one of those skills which, the more brilliantly it is executed, the less one is aware of quite what is being done. The sense of exposure I generally feel when about to start a recital from memory is lessened by the knowledge that behind me there is an amazing person, apparently with several brains and more than just two hands, who is seemingly able to read my mind.
At the end of an incredibly busy week, during which we had both workshopped and performed The Ubiquitous Woman, I joined pianist Libby Burgess in Hull. The University Music Department was hosting a weekend symposium with Malcolm Martineau, titled Piano Accompaniment in Practice. A range of sessions covered academic and practical aspects of accompanying both singers and instrumentalists.
In her paper, Libby addressed the question of how the accompanist “plays” the text. Malcolm had referred during the previous day’s masterclass to the range of functions the piano can serve, including “carpet” and “wallpaper” and the composer may also direct a pianist towards a much more specific characterisation in the story of the song. This is such rich territory that I would happily have spent the whole afternoon talking around the issues raised by the five songs we performed – Gebet (Wolf); Die Forelle (Schubert); Silent Noon (Vaughan Williams); Sleep (Gurney) and Love’s Philosophy (Quilter).
Our live experiment was to perform Silent Noon without ever having rehearsed it. Of course it’s a song we both know well, so this was a way to show in action the mechanisms which Libby had been describing, by which the accompanist pays attention to the singer and the text. Despite only scratching the surface of the subject, I have come away with some new ideas about how to return the compliment of the accompanist’s care.
I also have a copy of a magnificent chart (above, right) compiled by one of the other speakers. Proof, if it were needed, that accompanists have nine brains.
Last week we gave a presentation of early development work on The Ubiquitous Woman, a comic chamber opera commissioned by New Notes & Noises. After a week of workshops on the music and structure, we performed two sections of the piece.
The opening few scenes introduce Sabine, her husband Tony, Sabine’s clone Judith and Theo the artist with whom she makes off when she realises she can have her cake and eat it.
The second section dealt with how to present the idea of multiple clonings, both visually and in terms of the soundworld. We had been experimenting all week with pre-recorded voices and live singing, with additional sounds cued from the composer’s laptop.
The good news is that the feedback from the audience was positive and we are encouraged to go ahead both by supportive comments and by donations that have been made to this end. Read much more about The Ubiquitous Woman on the New Notes & Noises website and do support us with a donation if you can.
This week I was part of the world premiere of John Joubert’s Jane Eyre, his seventh opera. Charlotte Brontë’s story is tightly condensed into two acts, focussing on the relationship between Jane and Rochester, but giving prominence to the scene with St John Rivers, which Joubert considers the emotional turning-point of Jane’s journey. I had not previously encountered Joubert’s music outside the choral repertoire (his Torches being a staple of many carol services) so it was a revelation to hear the influences of two of his admitted great loves, Britten and Wagner, in his vocal lines and orchestration. For my money there was some Richard Strauss in there too (never a bad thing).
April Fredrick and David Stout (left) led the cast as Jane and Rochester, with Mark Milhofer as St John Rivers. A group of us played various smaller roles in the wedding scene, which is a crucial dramatic and musical climax. Kenneth Woods conducted the English Symphony Orchestra and our performance was recorded live by SOMM records for commercial release in 2018.
I hope Jane Eyre has a future on the stage – the story is such a strong one and it would be great to see this piece, which has waited so long to be heard, make the final leap into a full production.
I’m very pleased that I am finally able to announce the launch of a new charity I have set up to help support high-quality performances of new work and multi-disciplinary collaboration. New Notes & Noises will look to help support every step of the process of commissioning, developing, rehearsing and producing work in an exciting new period for lyric drama. I am already working with my familiar collaborator, Libby Burgess, as well as an altogether new, highly-skilled professional creative team to bring to life a new piece called The Ubiquitous Woman as a flagship project to get the charity off to a winning start.
You can read more about New Notes and Noises at the dedicated website, newnotesandnoises.org.uk.
I’m on the e-mailing list for various London venues, and sometimes I book on a whim for something that just catches my eye. Last night’s double-bill of Big Mouth and Small War at the Barbican’s Pit was just such an occasion. I have been involved in writing and producing one-woman shows for myself and I am especially interested in experiencing how other artists use this intimate format.
If one person is to keep the attention of the audience for an evening, the performance and the content need to be pretty interesting. Technology (and budget) can make a huge difference: video duplication of the single performer in Small War gave us four ‘extra’ actors. But it doesn’t have to be that way – in Big Mouth, the sheer virtuosity of the performer’s delivery persuades the audience that they are in the company of many individuals. Simple live-looping of text and song (see also Complicite’s The Encounter) is a pleasing way to share the ‘technique’ of the show with the audience and create the impression of a crowd.
For me, thinking about what I could programme with my own Vivienne, the challenge of a double-bill is to ensure that the two halves complement and balance each other. This isn’t an issue with two parts of the same piece but two separate works inevitably invite comparison. The first half last night (Big Mouth) was also the first piece to be made and appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in 2012 [review]. It is a tour-de-force for Valentijn Dhaenens who, at the end of it, might reasonably not fancy doing any more work for the day. However, at some point a pendant work, Small War, was made for him, addressing more directly the issues of war and human damage implicit in Big Mouth.
Both works make use of found texts, and this is where the imbalance lay for me. Big Mouth is an ingenious weaving-together of bits of public speech, often made famous or notorious because of who spoke them. Consequently the oratory is knowingly crafted – the speaker is always addressing an audience. Small War mines private testimonies, which turns out to be less interesting, because the content and delivery are inevitably more introvert. For me, the most interesting text came from a serviceman articulating the energy and thrill of killing someone in the line of duty, but it wasn’t enough to keep my interest in the way Big Mouth had gripped me. Having started the evening with an amazing show, the follow-up piece couldn’t really compete, despite everyone’s best efforts.
Arguably, shorter-length evenings are becoming common and a strong show lasting just over an hour doesn’t seem to leave audiences feeling short-changed. However anything less than an hour is unlikely to work for financial reasons – you can’t charge a high enough ticket price to cover your overheads unless you have a decent-length programme. So, while last night’s programme was a useful confirmation of my view that Vivienne needs a partner, it didn’t help me to decide who or what that might be.
The answer will come at some point – it always does. In the meantime I’ll keep enjoying other peoples’ solo shows until I have sorted out my own.
A brief trip to Seville recently reminded me of how many operatic connections the city has. My companion and I set out to track down what traces remain of the real people and locations that inspired operatic treatment, as well as observing the marketing advantages to be wrung from these associations. Apart from famous locations such as the Bullring and the Alcàzar, which make appearances in operas ranging from Carmen to La Favorita, there are lots of smaller places to be discovered.
Seville’s own municipal signage (sub-branded Ciudad de Opera) helpfully directed us to Rosina’s balcony and Basilio’s house (Il Barbiere di Siviglia). Plaza and Calle Doña Elvira are nearby, with the estate said to be the home of the original Don Juan (Don Giovanni) a couple of hours drive into the surrounding countryside.
Calle Maria de Padilla runs down the side of the grand University building that began life as the Royal tobacco factory where Carmen and friends would have worked. Assorted plaques (above) identify other sights such as the tavern where Carmen, Escamillo and Don José met, although surely a trick was missed by not just calling the place Lilas Pastia’s?
There was no such bashfulness from the hairdresser El Barbero di Sevilla, although the staff there drew the line at actual singing. Our twenty-year old guidebook had suggested a rival barbershop over the river in Triana borough as the premises occupied by the original Figaro, but when we went looking we were told that it was long gone. On a bus heading for Triana in search of Figaro, someone behind us was whistling. Not, as you might have imagined, hits from Carmen but Suzanna’s duet with the Countess, “Sull’aria”, from Le Nozze di Figaro.
Other less direct operatic associations also suggest themselves. Although Verdi’s auto da fe scene in Don Carlos takes place in the city of Valladolid, the Spanish Inquisition was very active in Seville and its very first auto da fe took place there on 6 February 1481. Plastic figurines of penitents in pointed hoods are widely available but disappointingly there were no models of Biggles, Jimenez and Fang.
Last weekend I visited the village of Ashmansworth to take part in the Finzi Friends‘ day of activity commemorating the 60th anniversary of Finzi’s death. The tiny church outside which Gerald and his wife Joy are buried (left) is just big enough to cram a baby grand in next to the font and still leave room for a select audience. Accompanying me in recital was Libby Burgess, and we were joined by composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, who spoke to the assembled Friends about the skill of word-setting and the treatment of text in sung works.
I always like to include work by living composers in recital programmes when I can, and Cheryl had transposed her Two Shakespeare Songs into a mezzo-friendly key for us to perform. The current Chairman of the Finzi Friends is another composer, Martin Bussey, whose setting of Church Romance by Thomas Hardy is a favourite of mine – its narrative about the meeting and courtship of the poets’ own parents formed a perfect programming bridge into the jazzier idiom of Richard Rodney Bennett’s A History of the Thé Dansant, whose texts are also about the romance of the composer’s (and poet’s) parents in the 1920s. Our programme therefore not only included songs by Finzi and Gurney (whose music Finzi championed), but nodded to the World War I centenary via Gurney, and marked this year’s Shakespeare anniversary.
However, the most intimate programming link to Ashmansworth was via our first Finzi song in his cycle To a Poet. James Elroy Flecker’s poem of the same name was felt by Finzi as a sort of personal artistic statement and he buried an early draft of the song under the porch of Church Farm, the house he built at Ashmansworth. The current owners allowed us into the orchard and here am I with Libby and Cheryl, in her magnificent apple-print dress, marking the fact that Finzi was also a keen apple-grower and saved a number of rare English varieties from extinction.