One for the angels
(Handel’s Messiah, SJE Arts, 11th December 2016. Review by Andrew Bell. www.dailyinfo.co.uk)
The Messiah rolled into St John the Evangelist on Sunday evening, having been performed by the same orchestra, soloists and many in the choir on the preceding days in London and Dorchester Abbey. Oxford always sees many – perhaps too many – Messiahs in the weeks before Christmas, but if there’s a better one than this in 2016 then it can only come from massed choirs of angels in some sort of paradise. For this was a Messiah without a weak link. There are generally one or two areas of frailty in the playing resources: perhaps an alto struggling a bit with the notes in the lowest register or a tenor not quite filling every last cubic centimetre of the venue space or a choir a little at sea with the top notes or the complex part-singing of a number. Here, the chain was flawless.
From the moment the Orchestra of St John’s went at the overture with its poignant opening and sudden switch to a more rapid fugue, it was clear that energy was to be the name of the game. Our players numbered a stripped-down 12, surely the very minimum to play this music; any fewer and we’d almost have been in octet territory. But what a sound they produced. Violinists Matthew Ward and Robert Salter led the way with verve, and I noticed that when the soloists in part 1 of the oratorio indulged in a little supernumerary flourish or two, the fiddlers followed them. The bass section of single cello and bass plus organ continuo backed up their colleagues nobly.
One of the quirky things about the piece is that the first sung part is a recitative and then air from the tenor rather than a chorus. Christopher Turner hit the ground running with his emphatic diction, grasp of the phrasing and big volume. The tenor has a little less to do than his colleagues, but Mr Turner set the standard for the rest. What’s more, he told me in the interval he’d been ill and lost his voice completely in the preceding week. He formed his recitative in part II, ‘Thy rebuke hath broken His heart’, into a statement bursting with drama. Conductor and orchestra founder John Lubbock took the choir into their opening ‘And the glory of the Lord’ at a spanking pace and so he continued throughout, always pushing on but without a trace of hurrying. Handel left next to no guidance in the score (he himself conducted at the opening night in Dublin from the harpsichord) so a conductor has a bit of licence.
The soloists took their turn one by one. Baritone Julien van Mellaerts was a calm presence with a notably smooth voice, though rising to a thunderous climax in his ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage’ and at the concluding ‘We shall be changed’ from ‘The trumpet shall sound’. Counter tenor Roderick Morris, following in the footsteps of James Bowman who has often performed the role in Oxford, impressed with his clear, natural tone – no throatiness – though possibly his diction was a little more muddy than that of his colleagues. Soprano Hannah Davey was terrific. This is the third time I’ve heard her lately and she’s got better and better. Ms Davey has a big voice (and that’s needed in St John the Evangelist with its high nave and yawning aisles) but lacks nothing in finesse. Her tone was very pure in the duet with counter tenor ‘Come unto him’, and then in part III in her ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, the very heart of the oratorio and of course of the Christian message, and in which she told me she finds particular inspiration, she took it steadily, stretching out a little the notes and the syllables, and in the church you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.
As for the choir, numbering 40 or so, therefore neither too many nor too few, it produced a big sound when required – at the end of the Hallelujah chorus the audience broke into a round of applause – but plenty of delicacy otherwise. They were precise in ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs’, flexible in the part singing of ‘For unto us a child is born’ and moving in the finale and the ‘Amen’, the entry of the trumpets during which has been described as “marking the final storming of heaven”. Those angels to whom Handel was appealing would have appreciated this superb Messiah
(Mozart and Grieg, Ashmolean Museum, 4th October 2016. Review by Peter Schofield)
The OSJ Prom on 4 October was devoted to the works of two composers, Mozart and Grieg, with a vocal work and a work for strings from each. It was given by another fine singer, Brazilian tenor Wagner Moreira, with the eleven-piece OSJ Strings, conducted by John Lubbock.
They opened with an elegantly phrased performance of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, a work I have not heard in the concert hall since I was a teenager, when it instantly became my favourite piece of music – very nostalgic! It was followed by the very dark concert recitative and aria Misero! O sogno … Aura, che intorno spiri. This describes the lament of an incarcerated prisoner, starving to death and addressing his last words to the woman he adores. (It predates by some twenty years Florestan’s impending fate in Fidelio.) It received an impressive sombre interpretation from the singer.
Following the interval (with refreshments available) there was the usual short talk. Jon Whiteley chose as his topic a relief from the Ashmolean collections Pierino da Vinci: Ugolino and his Sons in the Tower Famine, undergoing a similar fate.
After the interval, we heard Edward Grieg’s Six Songs Op 48, with the piano part transcribed for string ensemble by John Lubbock. This was another enjoyable and accomplished performance by the singer but one missed the intimacy of the voice and piano duo. The concert concluded with a spirited performance of the Holberg Suite, another work rarely heard in the concert hall.
Once again we left the Museum feeling privileged to have been part of the small select audience able to enjoy music-making of such quality.
(Music in the Abbey 2016, 25th September. Review by Andrew Bell, www.dailyinfo.co.uk)
This was the last date of Orchestra of St John’s Music in the Abbey festival, and talk about going out with a bang! The programme was a cornucopia crammed with operatic gems, the delivery impeccable and the setting a delight. To take the latter first, concert seating in Dorchester Abbey faces the choir, whose east end is described by Miss Jennifer Sherwood in Pevsner’s Oxfordshire as “magnificent… the use of sculpture combined with tracery is without parallel on this scale not only in England but in Europe”. As if this were not enough, the audience space is a pillar-free zone, the acoustics excellent, the welcome at the door warm, the concert programme a model of its kind, and the refreshment stall well-stocked.
We began with the first sequence of Strauss waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier, to my ear delightful for their relatively unemphatic waltz beat, freeing the music from its rigid dance carapace. This opera was Strauss’ greatest popular success. Special Rosenkavalier trains ran from Berlin to Dresden for the performances there, and Berlin was awash with Rosenkavalier brands of champagne and cigars. For once, the male members of the 30-strong orchestra made the greater visual impression in their white dress jackets, the women adopting no particular colour code.
Then on to our three soloists: Hannah Davey, resplendent in blue, sang an aria from La Boheme and then another from Massenet’s Werther, an opera not known to me. Both sentimental pieces, but the latter lighter in tone. This was as strong beginning. Then we heard the mezzo Francesca Saracino with two pieces from Gounod’s Faust, a grand 19th century opera needing dozens in the chorus and elaborate sets and costumes (plus a mini-ballet in Act V). Ms Saracino’s full, rounded tone, backed by her obvious pleasure in the music, made a fine impression.
Then we heard Ilona Domnich from St. Petersburg, with something altogether weightier and darker, the Willow Song and then Ave Maria from Verdi’s Otello, the orchestra breaking occasionally into the ‘growling’ chords characteristic of the composer. John Lubbock, the orchestra’s founder and conductor, took this at an unhurried tempo, allowing the music to breathe, and Ms Domnich filled the nave with the tragic laments of the wronged Desdemona.
The second half had but two components to it. First, Strauss’ Sextet from Capriccio, here played by a fullish orchestra. The piece has a life independent of its mother opera, being a popular chamber item. It features delightful counterplay between 1st and 2nd violins and an elegiac quality a little reminiscent of the famous adagietto from Mahler’s 5th. Mr Lubbock coaxed a smooth, dreamy tone from his players.
Finally we had the great trio from Der Rosenkavalier, featuring our three soloists, with Francesca Saracino taking the male part of Octavian – time-honoured gender-bending, sure, but still tricky. I wonder whether our singers knew that this very piece was performed at Strauss’ memorial service? Whether or no, they sang their hearts out, jostling musically to demonstrate once again that, in love, three into two won’t go. The displaced Ms Domnich took her bow at the end as a half-curtsey, hand on heart, in the manner of a ballerina after a Grand Pas de Deux.
Three terrific singers, a committed orchestra, fastidious programme planning – an evening for the connoisseur!
Evelyn Glennie and Christian Lindberg
(Cheltenham Music Festival, 7th July 2016. Review by Rebecca Franks, The Times)
More than 70 concertos have been written for the British percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and the latest is an entertaining romp for trombone, percussion and orchestra by the irrepressible Christian Lindberg. The Swedish trombonist, conductor and composer wrote Liverpool Lullabies off the back of his residency with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and a love of the Beatles.
Yet there were no signs of nodding off in the Cheltenham Music Festival audience; this bright, tonal burst of energy and colour couldn’t be less like a lullaby. Lyricism alternated with frenetic outbursts, jazz-tinged bittersweet melody with volleys of percussion. Lyricism alternated with frenetic outbursts, jazz-tinged bittersweet melody with volleys of percussion. Lindberg was wonderfully eloquent on trombone, but it was the percussion part that drew the eye and ear. Glennie, long hair flying free, danced around her lair of tuned and untuned percussion instruments, which took up a good chunk of the stage. Her miraculously controlled sound was loud and fierce one moment, soft and delicate the next.
Glennie was also on virtuosic form in the solo snare drum Prim, by the Icelandic composer Askell Masson. With rhythmic patterns based on the first 15 prime numbers, this is a whipcrack-smart showpiece. It would have been a great opener but instead we had Ravel’s Pavanne pour une infante défunte, a far gentler number that would have made more sense after the concerto. Still Lindberg’s arrangement for trombone and orchestra, occupying a similar world to Vaughan William’s Lark Ascending, was effective.
After these two larger-than-life soloists, a big musical personality was needed in the second half. Who better than Beethoven? John Lubbock conducted the Orchestra of St John’s from memory and baton-less, and they gave a heartfelt, headstrong performance of the Eroica Symphony. There were ragged corners and fast tempos that sagged, but this was Beethoven with an indomitable spirit – as it should be.
Evelyn Glennie and Christian Lindberg
(Cheltenham Music Festival, 7th July 2016. Review by Judith Wordsworth, Gloucestershire Echo)
There was a slight change to the programme order for this well-attended concert at Cheltenham Town Hall with Christian Lindberg playing his arrangement for trombone and orchestra of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte (Pavane for a dead Princess).
A pavane was a slow processional dance danced in European Courts during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Maurice Ravel originally wrote this piece, dedicated to his patron, Princesse de Polignac, for solo piano in 1899 while studying under Gabriel Faure at the Paris Conservatoire and later (1910) published it as an orchestral work.
Lindberg’s arrangement well suits the trombone, which he played with a beautiful warm resonant tone, accompanied by the Orchestra of St John’s under the expert baton of John Lubbock. There was some lovely sonorous playing from the 1st flute as well as impeccable tuning from the orchestra.
We were then treated to Dame Evelyn Glennie performing Askell Masson’s snare drum solo composition, Prim commissioned by the Danish percussionist Gert Mortensen in 1984.
This piece is reminiscent of many exercises joined together that percussion students at Music Colleges and Conservatoires slave over to develop their techniques. And, as every good drummer knows anyone can play loudly but only those who are exceptional can play quietly as Glennie slickly demonstrated, with paradiddles and rolls played pianississimo (ppp).
However, it was a shame that the snare drum was not placed centre stage during this piece as the audience from centre to stage left only had a side view.
The first half of tonight’s concert culminated in the premiere performance of Lindberg’s Liverpool Lullabies, for solo trombone, solo percussion and orchestra, composed as a result of discussions with John Lubbock, and commissioned by Cheltenham Music Festival.
Written words can tell a story, paintings a visual story on canvas and other mediums, and music can also tell stories which may be very different for each member of an audience.
Liverpool Lullabies would not send a child to sleep, though odd snippets may do just before a percussive nightmare intrudes.
At one point here is almost a pleading argument by the trombone to persuade the percussion to cease its ravings and ranting and allow sleep to descend. Another moment of eerie night music as dawn approaches, or does it?
One can imagine the fairies out dusting children’s’ eyes as notes twinkle on the glockenspiel and a while later dancing with other night creatures in a syncopated waltz before disappearing into the mists of fitful sleep with jerky chasing, twisting and turning before sitting bolt upright and the dream ends.
During the interval there was an excellent trombone ensemble entertaining those in the bar before returning to the auditorium to hear Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony No. 3 Opus 55, The Eroica (The Heroic).
The Eroica divided the Viennese audience when they first heard it. Some thought it a masterpiece while others thought its originality didn’t quite work but whichever it changed classical music and composers became masters of their own creations with human aspirations, fears and passions.
Lubbock conducted with his usual flair to make his stamp upon the Symphony and bring out the highest quality of music from, dare I say, his Orchestra and living up to their aim to make the emotion, drama and culture of live classical music available to everyone.
OSJ Prom: The Angell Trio with Katherine Broderick
(Ashmolean Museum, 11th July 2016. Review by Peter Schofield)
This concert, given by soprano Katherine Broderick with The Angell Trio, was another piece of imaginative programme building by music director John Lubbock, combining old and new, familiar and unfamiliar music. The first half consisted of two works for the unusual combination of soprano voice and piano trio by Shostakovich – Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok- and the world premiere of Songs Without by the young English composer Jordan Hunt. After the interval and the customary short talk, we heard Brahms’ B minor piano trio opus 8.
The soprano voice of Katherine Broderick first attracted my attention some ten years ago in a BBC Radio3 lunchtime broadcast, before her award of the Kathleen Ferrier prize in 2007. I had the radio on as background when my attention was grabbed and held by this extraordinary voice. Since then her voice has developed further and I last heard her as one of the outstanding Valkyries in Opera North’s recent Ring Cycle. It is now a very powerful instrument which took a little time to adjust to the scale and the acoustic of a chamber performance in the Randolph Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum.
The Shostakovich songs were written in 1967. The instrumentation is extremely ingenious, starting with cello alone in Ophelia’s Song, followed by fortissimo piano, then both strings. The climactic fifth song The Tempest, vividly depicting the build-up and onset of the storm followed by the dying down and restoration of calm, very reminiscent of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, is assigned to violin and piano; the cello joins in at the end of the storm and the final songs are played continuously. The work left a strong and lasting impression.
The five Songs Without written to the composer’s own words inspired by his life experiences were written for and dedicated to Broderick. Very similar in style and intensity to the Shostakovich, of which the composer became aware during the composition, they held their own in the company of the two other composers in the programme.
The Angell Piano Trio, Frances Angell (Piano), Jan Peter Schmolck (Violin) and Sally Pendlebury (Cello) has been a regular visitor to Oxford for very many years, playing at the Sunday morning Coffee Concerts. No opportunity to hear them should be missed. They make an interesting contrast to the slightly senior Florestan Trio, also regular visitors. Whereas the Florestan play under the direction of pianist Susan Tomes, sitting almost side-saddle on the piano stool, the Angell seem to play as individuals with little apparent contact. Nevertheless, the ensemble playing is impeccable, aided by the perfect match in timbre of the stringed instruments. Their sound is more intimate, less extrovert than that of the Florestan.
On this occasion, the audience was drawn deep into their interpretation of Brahms’ Trio No 1 in B major, Opus 8. This work was composed originally in 1854 at the composer’s age of twenty- one, but is usually played today in the revised version of 1889. It remains one of his most powerful chamber works, with bold themes, subjected to extensive development. The performance did it full justice.
The long gestation of the final version of the Trio inspired the interval talk given by the Museum’s Projects Officer Harry Phythian-Adams, making a tenuous connection to the history of his chosen object The Great Bookcase (1856-1862) by William Burges.
The OSJ Proms play to a capacity audience of loyal followers. The capacity, limited by the size of the Gallery, gives them a special aura. They have introduced us to some brilliant young musicians, as well as, as on this occasion, enabling us to hear established ensembles in both familiar and unfamiliar works.
Gwilym Simcock Quartet, OSJ/Lubbock, Jazz Sebastian Bach
(St John’s Smith Square, 8th April 2015. Review by Sebastian Scotney)
“This collaboration first saw the light of day with the title of “Jazz Bach!”(*) as one of the opening events in the 2013 Kings Place Bach Unwrapped year. The high quality ingredients are as follows: Gwilym Simcock‘s Quartet, John Lubbock‘s Orchestra of St John’s Smith Square, a top-notch chamber choir, and the timeless genius of Bach.
The basic idea is to use the instrumental and vocal resources to dip into and out of Bach and jazz, to explore contrasts and enjoy them, to take in both the familiar and the unfamiliar, to shake, to stir, and always to venerate. It’s an evolving idea which definitely held the attention of a full-ish St Johns Smith Square last night. The result was a programme full of contrasts, with unexpected treats where you might least expect them.
For example, it is a long time since I witnessed quite such concentrated listening, and such sustained applause, for an unaccompanied bass solo as last night, but there again, Yuri Goloubev is no run-of-the-mill bass player. He combines melodic gifts with frighteningly secure technique in a way which will always command respect, attention, awe, appreciation and affection. His exporatory take on the Prelude (Movement I) from the Suite No 1 in G for solo cello, BWV 1007 was a quite remarkable moment.
The show has acquired a title Jazz Sebastian Bach, which links it more overtly with the popular early sixties French jazz and Bach combinations by the Swingles and Jacques Loussier. Homage was duly paid to one of the best-known musical tropes from that period, Jacques Loussier’s take on “Orchestral Suite No. 3, in D major, BWV 1068: Air,”….later immortalized in the Hamlet cigar ad (LINK).
The were all sorts of other excursions too. Lubbock and soprano saxophonist Klaus Gesing – again that combination of melodic eloquence and pick-your-jaw-up-off-the-floor technique – disappeared together up into the gallery for a Bach chorale-plus-improvising-sax episode, taking the now familiar musical trope of Garbarek and the Hilliards, and let it work its magic. Then you had a string orchestra playing “straight” Bach, dialoguing with a jazz quartet playing “swung” Bach. And Kosma’s Autumn Leaves “Bach-ified.” There were also features for drummer Asaf Sirkis, who never repeats himself, makes every sound fresh. With no high-hat in his drum kit, every back-beat gets its own individual shape.
Jazz Sebastian Bach has a real freshness about it. The idea at its heart is flexible, extendable, malleable, and always welcoming of the new, and is also very well suited to Gwilym Simcock’s exceptional pianistic gifts and ever-evolving nature. Whereas JSB might well at some stage be frozen in time in a recording, it is to be hoped that the live performance won’t be allowed to stand still. With all kinds of treasures lying in wait in Bach’s oeuvre, it will be fascinating to see where Gwilym Simcock wants to take this venture next.”
(*) means Roy Eldridge in Welsh 🙂
From Inside Oxford (supplement of the Oxford Mail), September 2014 about our Music in the Abbey Festival
“My father – a city librarian – had many readers over a fifty year career. None were more precious to him than Mr C, born in the East End of London. Their friendship lasted several decades, yet I don’t believe either knew the other’s Christian name. It was always Mr…
Mr C told my father that in his class, not one child had shoes –but every child could read and write. He gave me a vinyl copy of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, which I played again and again in my room. I adored them; I think of Mr C to this day with pleasure, for introducing me to the work of JS Bach. I also loved Bad Moon Rising, by Creedence Clearwater Revival, but that’s another story. Well, all right. JS and Creedence vied for my attention, along with Radio Caroline, and Batman and Robin.
Imagine my joy this weekend when I was able to attend a concert in Dorchester Abbey in which not only were all the Brandenburg Concertos played over two nights – but Sir James Galway was a star soloist, accompanied by his glamorous flautist wife Jeanne?
As Dorchester Abbey’s Canon Sue Booys said: ‘Living over the shop means I am present at some wonderful occasions.’
48 years since it was founded by Galway’s friend, director John Lubbock, the Orchestra of St John’s (OSJ) stages a September festival every year at the Abbey. Originally based at St John’s Smith Square in Westminster, the orchestra has strong links with Oxford, including performing a series of ‘Proms’ at the Ashmolean Museum throughout the year.
‘I love Oxford,’ Galway told me, ‘ and I love performing with these musicians. They’re a lot of fun to be with. I’ve known John since the 70s. We go back a long way.’ His Irish eyes twinkled, and with his golden flute, his damask suit and his hand- embroidered waistcoat, he looked beguiling even before he lifted the flute to his lips. Then, oh then ! Lady Galway looked like an exotic bird of paradise beside him, gorgeous in yellow.
Between them, and the rest of OSJ’s balletic performers, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos danced and sparkled – the audience’s feet tapping irresistibly. JS Bach’s incomparable masterpiece soared into the vaulted hammer beamed roof. Surely even the gargoyles and stone faces must smile.
Lubbock’s ability to attract some of the world’s most iconic soloists also included Maki Sekiya, a diminutive Japanese pianist who nearly melted the piano with her thrilling performance of Bach’s Piano Concerto in F Minor. She received a cascade of ovations from the audience, who, as they stepped out into the warm night air might have agreed with Sir James:
‘When you hear what you’ve heard tonight, you can’t be in any doubt that Bach was the master composer. The variety and complexity of construction, the combinations of instruments: it’s Bach at his greatest.’
I agree, and thank Mr C.”
From Oxford Magazine by Peter Schofield about one of our Ashmolean Prom Concerts
“This concert was given by young string players from the Royal Academy of Music and by newly graduated soprano and Leeds maths graduate Sophie Pullen in the Atrium of the Ashmolean Musuem. The intriguing programme was of music for strings by Mendelssohn sandwiching songs by Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss.
The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s string symphony no 9, written in 1823 when the composer was fourteen. It was played by thirteen OSJ Young Performers, first year undergraduates at the RAM conducted by John Lubbock, ‘side-by-side’ with three players from OSJ itself. Mostly standing, they gave a performance of appropriately youthful enthusiasm without sacrificing precision.
The concluding work was the Octet of 1825, only two years later but displaying far greater maturity, which also received a scintillating performance by two student string quartets both formed in 2011 at the Royal Academy of Music. The Delmege Quartet was named after the late John Delmege, the well-known local amateur chamber music player whose family endowed the Quartet to study with the Maggini Quartet. He was dreaded among local pianists for his keyboard instrument, an ancient square piano, an octave short and with G rather than middle C in the centre of the keyboard –incredibly disconcerting. He lived at the end of a long unmade-up single track drive which usually meant a long reverse for one of two cars trying to pass (I never figured out the etiquette)!
The Alauda Quartet – 2013/14 Fellows in chamber music at the Academy – are mentored by Jon Thorne (Badke Quartet) and Oliver Wille (Kuss Quartet)and perform regularly throughout the UK and internationally. The performance was brilliantly led by Tom Aldren – brilliant first violin of the Delmege, who kept firm control of the eight instruments.
Sophie Pullen sang two songs by Rachmaninov and two by Srauss with string accompaniment. She sang well but seemed to have difficulty of adjusting her obvious power to the acoustic of the Atrium. Outstanding though was her performance of Rachmaninov’s wordless Vocalise. During the interval Jon Whiteley gave another of his insightful short talks, this time on the way the same landscapes which had inspired nineteenth century painters also influenced the poets and lieder writers.”
From The Guardian on Monday 27 January 2014 about the John Tavener 70th Birthday Celebration at St. John’s Smith Square
“The previous evening John Lubbock led the orchestra and the OSJ Voices with equal authority in two further UK premieres: the clamorous Three Hymns of George Herbert, and the raptly repetitive Prayer for Jerusalem – the latter’s performance made indelibly moving by the enthusiastic participation of the Just So Singers, whose members are students with special educational needs. Other highlights included Patricia Rozario’s soaring soprano in Eternity’s Sunrise, and cellist Alice Neary’s ecstatic tone in The Protecting Veil – both adding to the distinction of this wide-ranging tribute in a well-chosen setting.”