In concert – London Chamber Ensemble & Madeleine Mitchell: A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021)

London Chamber Ensemble [Madeleine Mitchell (violin, director), Joseph Spooner (cello), Sophia Rahman (piano), David Aspin (viola), Gordon Mackay (violin), Lynda Houghton (double bass), Peter Cigleris (clarinet, bass clarinet), Nancy Ruffer (flute), Alec Harmon (oboe), Bruce Nockles (trumpet), Ian Pace (piano)

Rebecca Clarke Piano Trio (1921)
Judith Weir Atlantic Drift: Sleep Sound ida Mornin’ (1995), Atlantic Drift (2006), Rain and Mist are on the Mountain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes (Movements I-IV, 2005)
Helen Grime Miniatures (2005)
Judith Weir The Bagpiper’s String Trio (1985)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad Invocation for cello & piano (1999)
Thea Musgrave Colloquy (1960)
Ruth Gipps Prelude for bass clarinet (1958)
Errollyn Wallen Sojourner Truth (2021, world premiere)
Grace Williams Suite for Nine Instruments (1934)

St John’s Smith Square, London
Monday 9 March (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Classical music still has an awfully long way to go before female composers are an integral part of its make-up, but the celebration of International Women’s Day is helping the cause considerably, gaining more traction with each passing year.

One of the highlights of the 2021 celebrations was this concert from St John’s Smith Square, masterminded by Madeleine Mitchell, who led the London Chamber Ensemble in a very satisfying hour-and-a-half of music.

In a concert celebrating eight women composers, the common threads of America and the Royal College of Music were also explored. The latter organisation is where Rebecca Clarke, Grace Williams and Helen Grime all studied, and where Errollyn Wallen and Mitchell herself are now professors. Wallen wrote a new piece, Sojourner Truth, for the occasion.

The concert began however with a terrific performance of Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio. Completed in 1921, this substantial piece begins with a passionate outpouring, but it also has its elusive, mysterious moments. The trio of Mitchell, cellist Joseph Spooner and pianist Sophia Rahman caught these elements, getting off to a terrific start but pulling back to allow the enchanting slow movement room to breathe. At times Clarke’s music hints at influences from France – particularly Ravel but also Franck – which Spooner caught in his high intonation in the second movement. The spirit of the dance inhabited the finale, a more obviously English statement, but there was still room for more fervent thoughts when the trio united.

There was a sudden transition on the broadcast to the refreshing open air of Judith Weir’s Atlantic Drift, a compilation of three pieces for two violins proving an invigorating contrast to the denser textures of the Clarke. Weir’s incorporation of folk material into her music is enchanting, especially in the four-part last piece, Rain and mist are on the Moutain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes. Using a Gaelic song as its inspiration, Weir’s adaptation worked really well in these open air accounts from Mitchell and Gordon Mackay, the empty St John’s providing the ideal acoustic. Weir appeared later with The Bagpiper’s String Trio, a similarly folk-powered work from 1985. Based on a Scottish pipe tune this too lifted the listener away to the great outdoors, with excellent teamwork from Mitchell, Spooner and viola player David Aspin.

Helen Grime’s trio of Miniatures for oboe and piano were next, studies in compressed expression from the pale harmonics of the first to the jagged edges of the second. The third was an effective summation of Grime’s thoughts, panning out for a wider perspective from the piano. Alec Harmon and Sophia Rahman were fully responsive to the virtuoso demands.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Invocation for cello and piano followed, a late teenage piece offering an immediate chance to appreciate the probing line given to Joseph Spooner’s fulsome cello. As the composer’s response to Edvard Munch’s painting Melanchola reached its apex there were clangorous chords from Rahman, capping a compact but powerful utterance.

Thea Musgrave’s Colloquy was next, another model of economy – four short pieces for violin and piano packed with sharp, expressive statements. There were some challenges to performance here – such as the quick interchange between pizzicato and bowing in the second movement – which Mitchell took in her stride. The third piece was a touch more playful but still assertive, but the fourth was the most effective, a private train of thought gracefully prompted by Ian Pace’s piano.

The most striking piece of the evening – for its sound, its soul and its warmth – was Ruth GippsPrelude for bass clarinet. Gipps’ centenary falls this year, and her slightly baleful writing for the instrument was beautifully captured by Peter Cigleris, a model of control. After watching this I was struck by two questions – why do we not hear the music of Gipps more, and why are there not more pieces for solo bass clarinet?

Errollyn Wallen’s Sojourner Truth followed, written not just for Madeline Mitchell but for International Women’s Day – and taking us back to violin and piano. Based on a spiritual, O’er the crossing, it features intense dialogue between the two instruments, but when the melody is heard unaccompanied on the violin the ear is pulled firmly towards the centre of the music, a striking feature of another piece with more traditional inspirations.

To finish, we heard the 75-year-old Suite for Nine Instruments by Grace Williams. Scored for piano quintet, double bass, flute, clarinet and trumpet, it is a vivacious piece, quite modal and with hints of Stravinsky’s Septet for a similar instrumental combination – and equally driven in the outer movements, bringing the interval of a tritone right to the front. The London Chamber Ensemble played with flair, commitment and virtuosity, bringing a very impressive program to a close.

The concert is available to watch until 8 April on the link below – with some spoken introductions by Mitchell herself. On occasion the gaps between pieces are very short, but there are helpful markers to make viewing easier. Do make sure you watch, as some of the best chamber music from British women composers in the last 100 years is right here.

A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021) on International Women’s Day, directed by Madeleine Mitchell from St John’s Smith Square on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, Madeleine and the London Chamber Ensemble’s album of works by Grace Williams can be heard here:

BBC Proms 2016 – Pekka Suusisto, Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Pekka Kuusisto High Res 6 - credit Maija Tammi

Pekka Kuusisto (c) Maija Tammi

Prom 27; Royal Albert Hall, 5 August 2016

You can watch this Prom from its BBC broadcast – the Grime and Tchaikovsky here and the Stravinsky here

For sheer musical enjoyment this Prom took some beating.

Right from the start it was clear the players of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were at the Royal Albert Hall to enjoy their Friday night, and in Pekka Kuusisto they had a more than willing accomplice.

It was Kuusisto’s first appearance at the festival, and as he arrived onstage he gazed in wonder at the full hall, taking in its scope and bidding a cheery ‘hello’ to the front ranks of the Prommers. At that moment you sensed his performance, even before he played a note, had gone up a gear.

Sure enough, his performance of Tchaikovksy’s Violin Concerto was dazzling, but he was careful not to let technical feats overshadow the core of the music’s emotion. As the longer first movement unfolded so did the ardent, lyrical phrases, until we reached the solo cadenza, where just a flick of the eyes and arms were enough to get the audience laughing. Kuusisto plays a lot of his music as though for the first time, the childlike innocence (not to mention his boyish face!) a combination of pure enjoyment. The audience, wrapped up in the occasion, applauded as though he had finished, fully aware there were two more movements to come.

These were the doleful Canzonetta, reminding us of the serious circumstances in which the piece was composed (Tchaikovsky’s disastrous and shortlived marriage, made in spite of his convictions around his homosexual orientation) and a finale that brushed all that aside, its main tune from the violin scampering all over the orchestra as they tried to keep up.

Both violinist and orchestra rightly received a rapturous ovation, but Kuusisto was not done, returning for a traditional Finnish song. Following Sol Gabetta’s lead from the First Night he did the singing, while BBC SSO leader Laura Samuel gamely added a rustic accompaniment. Even the audience were involved, singing one of the phrases as Kuusisto brought the house down.

Even after that the enjoyment was yet to peak, for Thomas Dausgaard – who had shaped Tchaikovksy’s phrases rather beautifully – led them in a vibrant account of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. The composer’s second ballet is perhaps his most tuneful, full of Russian folk song references as it tells the tale of the ultimately doomed puppet. The colours of this performance were given by the BBC SSO at their very best, with superb contributions from Mark O’Keeffe and Eric Dunlea (trumpets), a beautiful, child-like solo from flautist Charlotte Ashton, and wonderful contributions from solo woodwind, brass and percussion alike – not to mention the brilliant efforts of pianist Lynda Cochrane and Julia Lynch on celesta.

Dausgaard was enjoying himself, and although on occasion the music was a little fast it was never less than energetic, the players relishing the shades of colour in The Shrovetide Fair, and the irresistible hooks and dance rhythms Stravinsky threads through the music.

Dausgaard is due to take over full time as chief conductor of the orchestra in the autumn, and on this evidence the two look set for a fruitful musical relationship.

eardleyCatterline in Winter (c) The estate of Joan Eardley.

Beginning the concert was the first part of Helen Grime’s Two Eardley Pictures, a new piece commissioned by the BBC and with its second part today. This one, Catterline in Winter, portrayed the fishing village of the North of Scotland, capturing it in steely, metallic colours – reflecting the dark grey sky and the icy blasts of a seemingly ever present wind. It is always difficult to appraise a new piece on first hearing, but this was an impressive and brightly lit score that is well worth hearing for a second time – preferably in the company of the second, Snow.

Ben Hogwood