Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Katie Bray sings Freya Waley-Cohen’s Spell Book @ Wigmore Hall

Katie Bray (mezzo-soprano), Britten Sinfonia Soloists [Jacqueline Shave, Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Joy Farrall (clarinet), John Lenehan (piano)]

Leclair Trio Sonata in D major Op.2/8 (1728)
Mahler arr. Waley-Cohen Rückert-Lieder (1901-2, arr. 2019)
Lutosławski Bukoliki (1952 arr. 1962)
Waley-Cohen Spell Book (2019)

Wigmore Hall, London
Wednesday 22 January 2020

Photo credits Patrick Allen (Freya Waley-Cohen); Tim Dunk (Katie Bray)

Review by Ben Hogwood

The previews for this concert were intriguing. As well as a performance of a new arrangement of Mahler’s Ruckert-Lieder, we were to be treated to Spell Book, the world premiere tour of a new dramatic work by Freya Waley-Cohen.

Inspired by the composer’s encounter with Rebecca Tamás’ collection of poems WITCH, the song cycle was written for and performed by mezzo-soprano Katie Bray, singing with an ensemble of string quartet, clarinet and piano. In terms of forces used this gave the work a similar profile to Schoenberg’s famous melodrama Pierrot Lunaire. The music fulfilled Waley-Cohen’s wish that it would place us under a spell, as the book had clearly done for the composer. She brought it to life with music of luminosity and captivating drama.

She was helped considerably by Bray (above), who held the attention effortlessly with a commanding performance. The first and most substantial song, spell for Lilith, found her word emphasis in the observation that Lilith is ‘such a bad girl’ setting the expressive tone. The music swept up to impressive heights, Bray’s voice stopping the listener in their tracks while simultaneously nailing the acoustic of the hall.

Waley-Cohen’s response to the text was often vivid, the instruments either offering weighty support to the words or dropping away under their feet. The observation that ‘Lilith, you have a great body’ received appropriately slinky contours, while the contrast of suspension and movement towards the end led to a delirious postlude from John Lenehan’s piano.

The following two songs were more compact but retained Lilith’s intensity. spell for sex had a soft, alluring vocalise that was also remote, while the spell for logic was much more active, pockets of instrumental music bumping into the vocal line but never overwhelming it. The open-ended challenge to the audience was effective, as was the relatively sudden finish, concluding a mysterious and strangely euphoric piece. The spell had indeed been cast.

Spell Book was complemented by Waley-Cohen’s arrangement of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder. In this regard she was bravely nailing her colours to the mast alongside the intimidating figure of Schoenberg, whose arrangement of the composer’s Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) for chamber ensemble around 100 years ago is still occasionally performed. The ensemble here, replicating that for Spell Book, was cut from similar cloth.

This performance was a qualified success, part of the fault for that lying with the listener and a long-held familiarity with the piano and orchestral versions of Rückert-Lieder. There were however some imaginative qualities here, particularly the technique of doubling instruments at a distance of two octaves. John Lenehan‘s high piano right hand therefore acquired a ghostly shadow in the form of Caroline Dearnley‘s low cello, and this technique was used to create an enchanting, wispy half-light.

It also suited Bray’s range and performance, and while her interpretation felt like it may still be in progress – again the problem of over-familiarity rearing its head – she grew into the songs as they unfolded. The famous Um mitternacht was an inevitable highlight, while the clarinet lines in Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (Do not look into my songs!) were beautifully rendered by Joy Farrall. The final song, the rapt Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) was beautifully controlled if not quite reaching peak intensity.

Prior to the song cycles we heard the Trio Sonata in D major from Jean-Marie Leclair. It made a nice change to hear this music on modern instruments, the program illustrating how the Trio Sonata was in fact a predecessor of the Piano Trio. Jackie Shave, Caroline Dearnley and John Lenehan clearly enjoyed their time with this piece, and Leclair’s elevation of the cello to much more than mere accompaniment found the two string players engaged in rewarding dialogue.

In between the song collections Dearnley teamed up with viola player Clare Finnimore for Lutoslawski’s six Bukoliki, delectable folk-inspired miniatures originally conceived for piano but subsequently arranged by the composer. Lasting little more than a minute, each one was beautifully formed and strongly expressive, the string players enjoying the melodic ornaments and the rustic sweeps of the bow. The addition of subtle discords created a haunting quality to some of this music, pointing the way to Lutoslawski’s sonic innovations to come.

The Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch series continues to impress with its imaginative programming and opportunities for contemporary composers. Both aims were realised here in a richly rewarding concert.

Further reading and listening

To discover more about Freya Waley-Cohen, you can visit her website here or listen to her music on Soundcloud here. Meanwhile the Spotify link below offers a chance to hear her Permutations, as played by her sister, violinist Tamsin.

 

Arcana at the opera: Coraline @ Barbican Theatre

Mark-Anthony Turnage Coraline

Opera in Two Acts – Music by Mark-Anthony Turnage; Libretto by Rory Mullarkey, after the novella by Neil Gaiman; Sung in English (no surtitles)

Barbican Theatre, London

Thursday 29th March, 2018

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Coraline – Mary Bevan (soprano); Mother/Other Mother – Kitty Whatley (mezzo-soprano); Father/Other Father – Alexander Robin Baker (baritone); Miss Spink/First Ghost Child – Gillian Keith (soprano); Miss Forcible – Francis McCafferty (mezzo-soprano); Mr Bobo/Second Ghost Child – Harry Nicoll (tenor); Third Ghost Child – Dominic Sedgewick (baritone)

Aletta Collins, designer; Giles Cadle, set designer; Gabrielle Dalton, costume designer; Matt Haskins, lighting designer

Britten Sinfonia / Sian Edwards

Barbican Theatre, London
Thursday 29th March 2018

From the streetwise allegory of Greek, through the traumas of war in The Silver Tassie and tawdry decadence of Anna Nicole: Mark-Anthony Turnage has always been unequivocal in his choice of topics for dramatic treatment, and Coraline ultimately proves no exception.

Its libretto is expertly derived by Rory Mullarky from a novella by fashionable author Neil Gaiman, but what really makes this opera succeed as a theatrical concept is the equilibrium secured between those real and imaginary worlds being traversed by the eponymous heroine in terms of their narrative symmetry and of musical evolution. In these respects, the piece is something of a breakthrough for Turnage – enhanced with an undemonstrative effectiveness of staging which makes up for in scenic integration what it might lack in visual immediacy.

Utilizing the ostensibly inflexible space of Barbican Theatre, Aletta Collins has fashioned a production which underlines the scenario’s uneasy pivoting between fairy-tale and allegory; enabling both characters and settings to appear unexceptionally human while indicative of something ‘beyond’. Her achieving this has been abetted by the engaging and never unduly tricksy designs of Giles Cadle, functional yet never utilitarian costumes by Gabrielle Dalton and effective while unfussy lighting from Matt Haskins. It might be argued the Other House into which Coraline ventures is insufficiently distinct (eye-buttons aside!) from the real one, but such visual consistency serves to unify dramatic action across and between acts; and so ensure an equivocation between environs as points up the underlying moral more explicitly.

These visual qualities are complemented by vocal ones. It might not call for virtuoso singing per se, but Coraline does require tightness of ensemble such as the present cast has in spades. Mary Bevan makes a sympathetic though never cutesy impression in the title-role, gaining in expressive conviction as the drama unfolds, while Kitty Whatley arguably steals the show in her assumption of the mothers. That of the fathers may be more simply drawn, but Alexander Robin Baker is likable and engaging; no less than Harry Nicoll as hapless inventor Mr Bobo. Gillian Keith and Francis McCafferty complement each other ideally as faded thespians Miss Spink and Miss Forcible; the former giving a whimsical cameo as the First Ghost Child, with her companions represented in equally touching fashion by Nicoll and Dominic Sedgewick.

Concerning Turnage’s music, it might easily be dismissed as effective in underpinning stage-action while lacking the memorability and individuality of his best scores. That said, there are numerous stylistic traits consistently in evidence – not least the pungent rhythmic unisons and harmonic astringency such as this composer has made his own. It helps that the score is given with such audible conviction by Britten Sinfonia, increasingly familiar in the opera-pit, and is conducted by Sian Edwards with an appropriate amalgam of incisiveness and dramatic focus.

Whatever else, Coraline secured an evidently appreciative response from adults and children alike, for whom this drama’s more traditional aspects seemed not to inhibit their enjoyment. Not a mesmeric or revelatory night at the opera, perhaps, but an enjoyable and appealing one.

Further performances of Coraline take place at the Barbican Theatre on April 3, 4, 5 & 7 at 7pm and April 7 at 2pm. For more details visit the Barbican and Royal Opera House websites

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Tom Morley on Ravi Shankar & Philip Glass: Passages

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Tom Morley gives his thoughts on the Britten Sinfonia’s rare performance of the Philip Glass / Ravi Shankar collaboration Passages, with the composer’s daughter Anoushka Shankar playing the sitar.

Prom 41: Alexa Mason (soprano), Anoushka Shankar (sitar), Ravichandra Kulur (bansuri), Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar), Britten Sinfonia / Karen Kamensek (above)

Philip Glass & Ravi Shankar Passages (1989-90)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 15 August 2017 (late night)

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Tom, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

There were two main influences in my musical upbringing. The first came from the local church choir which I sang with three times a week. Most of what we sang was very traditional although there was a piece by Messiaen which got wheeled out every now and then which was pretty out there.

Secondly, my parents were musical so I remember them playing and singing around the house. I’ve also got memories of sitting down with my Dad to listen to a recording, his taste is pretty eclectic so I remember listening to Phantom of the Opera, Donald Where’s Your Troosers, Return to Innocence by Enigma and Night Boat To Cairo by Madness!

What experiences have you had up until now with classical music, and have they been good or bad, or both? (Examples are great if you’re able!)

Aside from the choir, I played trumpet in an orchestra for a short while but decided it wasn’t really my thing. At university I had a few lectures on classical music but once again, struggled to find anything that really spoke to me apart from the odd piece here and there. I wouldn’t say my experiences with classical music have been either good or bad, probably somewhere in the middle.

What if any have been your previous experiences of the Proms?

I’ve never been to a Prom. I sometimes look through the schedule and think about going but have got round to going to see one.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Radiohead – They always seem to keep their music interesting and challenging and I like the cinematic quality to some of what they write as well as the artwork and concepts that go along with the music.

Snarky Puppy – These guys are brilliant musicians, they’re really supportive of music education and they look like they’re having a great time on stage. Definitely more of a live band than a studio band.

The Beatles – An obvious choice, but they did so much to push the boundaries of popular music and created so many memorable tracks in a such a short while as well as having a massive influence on music and culture.

What did you think of the concert?

I loved it. I can honestly say I’ve never heard anything like that before. I think I was particularly fortunate to be at this one which was a real meeting of styles and ideas and the first live performance of the piece with great musicianship all round.

What did you think of the environment in the Arena?

Not what I was expecting at all. When we walked up the steps the atmosphere changed completely. Some people were standing, some were sitting or lying down and there was a buzz of excitement but when the music started everyone was listening intently. I think this was helped by the fact that this was a late night performance and in some ways, it felt more like a gig than a concert and even though we were close to the back, we still had a good view of the stage.

Is there anything you would change about the Proms?

More of the same please. If they’re all as varied and unique as this one then there’s nothing I’d change, stick to the same formula. If I had to change one thing, it’d be an outsiders perception of the proms. I thought that it was a strictly ‘classical’ music event but there seems to be a real range of different styles and types of music being performed. It’d be great if more people realised how accessible the proms are, even if you don’t typically listen to classical music.

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – Anoushka Shankar and the Britten Sinfonia with Karen Kamensek perform ‘Passages’

Prom 41: Alexa Mason (soprano), Anoushka Shankar (sitar), Ravichandra Kulur (bansuri), Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar), Britten Sinfonia / Karen Kamensek (above)

Philip Glass & Ravi Shankar Passages (1989-90)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 15 August 2017 (late night)

You can listen to this Prom here

Passages is a good, old fashioned piece of classical crossover as it really should be, an example of just how well different forms of music can feed from each other if the composers are flexible and like-minded about their project.

Philip Glass was certainly enthusiastic on discovering the music of Ravi Shankar in Paris in 1965, laying the roots for a collaboration between the two, finally engineered by Private Music in 1989. The result was the intriguing Passages, an hour-long work that sits squarely between the two in terms of style. It is a ‘to me, to you’ work, each composer finishing the other’s thoughts in full musical clothing.

Initially on hearing the strains of Offering and Sadhanipa, however, you might have wondered if the two composers actually met in the construction of the piece. Offering is so irrefutably ‘Glassy’ in style, bubbling beneath the surface before moving into those persuasive cross rhythms he executes so effectively, but it has extra colour in the orchestration to mark it out. Likewise, Sadhanipa stands out with its use of the rich timbres of the Eastern instruments brought in by Shankar as part of the fusion.

Gradually the sounds come together, the distinctive figurations of Shankar complementing the rigorous methods of Glass, and taming them attractively when appropriate. To experience this at the Proms was a treat indeed, the ever-flexible Britten Sinfonia sitting centre stage but often in thrall to the group of musicians positioned on their left, led by Shankar’s daughter Anoushka (below).

Hers was a particularly captivating presence, the sounds from her sitar at once alluring and lovingly wrought, a complement to the superb string playing of Jackie Shave and her Britten cohorts. Soprano Alexa Mason deserves a mention for her floated yet penetrating delivery above the textures in Channels and Winds, while the brass and woodwind were particularly strong in the passages where Glass asks for a more mechanised approach. Meetings Along The Edge was particularly powerful because of this.

The score was full of colourful surprises, which the audience lapped up, and did not suffer for the ‘bar lines’ introduced by conductor Karen Kamensek for the necessity of concert performance. Happily this did not rein the music in, for it was clearly intensively rehearsed, and the Britten Sinfonia players, no strangers to playing music across cultural and artistic borders, responded to the contours of Shankar’s melodies and the clear direction of Kamensek as naturally as they did for the Glass elements.

The resulting collaboration may be a little on the episodic side, but Passages is never less than intriguing, and in this late night performance its qualities were very much to the fore in music that pulsed and shimmered before our very eyes.

One gripe – it would have been nice to credit the orchestral players in the program. Great though it is to have a free and colourful document of the occasion, it seems a shame not to name the players responsible for helping make this night a memorable one.

Ben Hogwood

You can hear the original recording of Passages on the Spotify link below:

Steve Reich at 80 – Barbican review

reich-80

Steve Reich at 80

Pendulum Music (1968)

Nagoya Guitars (1996)

Electric Counterpoint (1987)

Different Trains (1988)

Pulse (2015) [Barbican co-commission: European premiere]

Three Tales (2002)

Dither (electric guitars), Thomas Gould and Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Beryl Korot (video); Electronic Music Studios of the GSMD; Synergy Vocals; Britten Sinfonia / Clark Rundell

Barbican Hall, London

Saturday 5th November [6.30pm]

The Barbican venues were dominated this weekend by Steve Reich, whose 80th birthday fell on October 3rd and whose music is the most vital manifestation of the minimalist aesthetic, as well as a pervasive influence on later generations of essentially non-minimalist composers.

The Saturday evening concert itself offered a fair overview of Reich’s evolution across three decades. Pendulum Music may be more an art installation than musical composition, but the presence of 16 people each setting a microphone in motion, such that the resulting feedback is projected by accompanying speakers, makes for a music-theatrical experience of no mean efficacy. A thought persists whether Reich might have been encouraged to do for pendulums what Ligeti had done for metronomes with his Poème symphonique just six years previously?

Utterly consistent in his compositional techniques, Reich has never written intrinsically bad pieces though he has written a few boring ones. There could be no doubting the effectiveness with which David Tanenbaum adapted 1994’s Nagoya Marimbas into Nagoya Guitars, even though the resulting canonic interplay barely sustained interest over its six minutes. Nor did the presence of live guitarists make Electric Counterpoint a riveting experience – not helped by amplification that blurred the interplay of the 11 leads and muddied that of the two basses.

This programme was to have featured Reich’s WTC 9/11 (by some way the most meaningful response to those atrocities in New York), but few would have begrudged revival of Different Trains. Here a live string quartet and three pre-recorded equivalents are overlaid with speech patterns as evoke their literal and metaphorical ‘journeys’ to spellbinding effect, above all in the climactic central Europe – during the war section where observations of three Holocaust survivors become integrated into a soundscape as affecting as any Reich has (and could ever have) achieved. Framed by engaging recollections of the composer’s peripatetic childhood in America – before the war, and a more reflective sequence focussing on observations After the war, it is likely to remain Reich’s masterpiece and Minimalism’s defining raîson d’être.

After which, Pulse was a gentle come-down. This latest Reich work deploys its ensemble of woodwind, strings and pianos via interweaving canons in music that pivots between repose and torpor – with more than a hint of American ‘ruralism’ as regard its harmony and texture.

Back to more immediate concerns with Three Tales – the second of Reich’s collaborations with the video artist Beryl Korot, and his closest engagement (to date) with the premises of contemporary music-theatre. There are three parts, and these are strongly differentiated as to era, concept and underlying form. Thus Hindenburg unfolds as a suite where reportage of the 1937 zeppelin disaster frames imagery of its construction and (over-reaching) ambition, while Bikini is akin to an oblique sonata-design in which footage from the air, on the atoll and on the ships is imbued with expressive intensification and ominous Biblical undertones.

These latter are to the fore in Dolly, where images of the first cloned mammal become the catalyst for six sections akin – in musical terms – to developing variation in the way over a dozen talking heads, with their ‘outlooks’ on the future, are juxtaposed in a sequence whose implosive final dialogue of Kismet (a socially intelligent humanoid robot) with its creator parallels changes from external to internal technological developments over the last century.

Hugely ambitious (despite its barely hour-long duration) and far more compellingly presented than on its previous Barbican outing over a decade ago, Three Tales might still promise more than it delivers, but its attempt to grapple with contemporary issues remains absorbing and it is to be hoped that Reich and Korot will take on one more collaborative challenge. Tonight’s realization overcame technical hitches to convey its emotional charge in full measure, Clark Rundell drawing a precisely coordinated response from Synergy Vocals and Britten Sinfonia.

Reich and Korot were on hand for a post-performance discussion where the former was asked as to future-plans. His immediate task is for a piece on the principals of the ‘concerto grosso’, which will doubtless emerge revivified at the hands of this perennially resourceful composer.

Richard Whitehouse