Is This The Future of Opera? Youthful Exuberance for Opera Holland Park.

 

12.jpgJack Holton (Anckarström) with Blaise Malaba (Ribbing) and Tom Mole (Horn).

 

Like Shakespearean actors and concert pianists, opera singers are outsiders in today’s entertainment world of self-made performers boasting one million subscribers on their Youtube channel.

Accessibility is of course a lovely idea and the internet has certainly provided an equal platform for aspirants. But there is one thing you can be sure of, even with the best will in the world, that you will never become an opera star just like that! Years of training and true grit might just get you over the first hurdle when you first set foot on the stage.

Knowing this, it is astonishing to think that there are still those willing to sacrifice the best of their youth to such a tough profession.

And yet they are, for opera is attracting more young blood and not always from the usual classical music schools. The Nadine Benjamins of this world are on the increase. Benjamin fought her way up from a Brixton council estate to become one of the UK’s most sought after lyrical sopranos. Of course it was a fight for her, even when she managed to find teachers, some of whom were most unhelpfully suggesting that she turn her efforts to jazz.

10Nadine Benjamin singing Amelia.

Still – there are now more job opportunities in opera as it opens up and is performed outside the established venues. The standard used to be middling to good outside ROH, Glynebourne, Garsington but all that has changed. Opera has evolved and what is more astounding, it is starting to get through to the young, thanks to people like Michael Volpe running Opera Holland Park, whose mission it has been to make opera accessible to all.

I was astonished to view a Twitter video recently of school children (10 years plus) giving a standing ovation to Un Ballo in Maschera at Holland Park Opera. The Ballo in question was a Young Artists’ performance of Verdi’s masterpiece. ‘Young artists’ in opera terms denotes singers in their mid to late 20s who are starting out in this careers.

Buoyed by this concept I was curious to see why the young audience had reacted so enthusiastically and made my way to the evening performance of Ballo the following day. The formula was thus: two leads sung by established singers, Nadine Benjamin in this production singing Amelia, and Adriano Graziani the ill-fated Swedish king, Gustavo. The rest of the troupe were youth artists. And of course all the above were supported by a strong OHP chorus and consistently brilliant City of London Sinfonia orchestra. The staging and set were gleaned from the original Ballo production at Holland Park the week before, which had been universally praised by the reviewers.

Never before have I heard Nadine Benjamin sing with such beauty and raw emotion. She was Amelia; married, loyal and gradually worn thin by her feelings for her husband’s employer.Wherever she was on stage she projected with passion and intelligence without overacting. Her centred approach gave more power to that astonishing voice of hers.

Adriano Graziani as Gustavo, excelled in the light-hearted arias in Act One, his bright tenor suiting the role. His body language was however awkward in the more intimate duets with Amelia. In Act III his solos in the penultimate scene were however intensely moving as he decides to let Amelia go to save her honour and marriage. Graziani was a generous support to his page, Oscar, sung by youth singer, Claire Lees. There was a nervous, tightness in Lees’s voice and body language to start (tough when you are singing coloratura) but with Graziani’s encouraging presence beside her, her life-enhancing, crystalline voice took off.

 

3Adriano Graziani (Gustavo) with Claire Lees (Oscar)

Meanwhile, Jack Holton embraced the onerous Anckarström role. At the matinée performance he had caused quite a stir on stage with his impressive stature, pony-tail and caressing baritone. He was almost too seductive for the role. It was only by clomping inelegantly around the stage did he succeed in making himself appear a little more prosaic. His young baritone voice was stretched a little in parts in the lower register, but in the main, it came across as rich and assured.

Other notable performances were Georgia Mae Bishop’s confident portrayal of Madame Arvidson the fortune teller. Conspirators, Ribbing, (Blaise Malaba), and Horn (Tom Mole) provided much needed black comedy to the piece especially in their mocking laughter trio with Anckarström.

Sam Oram finally, in the cameo role of Cristiano, didn’t quite get the opportunity to display his baritone credentials, but he is also someone scaling the operatic ladder.

All in all an exciting, highly ambitious project which came off brilliantly! Conductor, Sonia Ben-Santamaria, also from the young artist scheme, did a fine job of directing City of London Sinfonia in what is a fiendishly difficult opera to conduct with its fast tempos, quintets and intricate arrangements. Slight timing issues, when the French horns ran away with themselves for example, were just blips on an otherwise beautifully fluid interpretation of one of Verdi’s most ravishing of scores.

KH

Schools matinée curtain call of the year 2019: https://www.facebook.com/operahollandpark/videos/424337234958625/?q=Opera%20Holland%20Park&epa=SEARCH_BOX

My review of the adult performance of Ballo: https://artmuselondon.com/2019/06/20/verdis-ballo-in-maschera-a-revelation/

If you are interested in reading about the young artists at Opera Holland Park, here is the link: https://operahollandpark.com/news/introducing-the-opera-holland-park-young-artists-2019

    

Mothers and Sons and L’arlesiana

Ali Wright

Yvonne Howard, Rosa Mamai and L’innocente sung by Samantha Price.

 

At a performance of L’Arlesiana at Opera Holland Park recently, I was bowled over by Yvonne Howard’s heart-breaking aria, Esser madre è un inferno (To be a mother is hell!). Howard as the long-suffering matriarch is superb. When she pleads for God to watch over her son, who has become enamoured with a woman of questionable repute, you really feel her pain.

The theme of unbridled, misguided passion in opera is a potent one and which still resonates with contemporary audiences, for man is flawed.

L’arlesiana was first performed in 1897 in Milan, over a century ago, but the psychological drama still  plays out (within reason) in our homes, for isn’t it every mother’s nightmare to see her son give his heart away to someone who makes him unhappy, or happy for that matter! The rejection a mother experiences is today’s best kept secret, for to admit to such feelings is to imply that you have failed in some way. It is astonishing to think that in these supposedly enlightened times, these lousy emotions are still felt by women who work, are independent and who enjoy interests outside their children. That they should feel that age-old jealousy towards their son’s lover seems inconceivable, but trust me, they do! And then they get over it. In opera it’s different.

In L’arlesiana Rosa Mamai’s solution is to steer her son in the direction of a nice girl, Vivetta, from their Provencal village. Flur Wyn played this role to perfection with her clean as a whistle soprano voice. Her devoted love heals him momentarily but alas Federico cannot forget his scarlet-clad arlesienne.

She appeared on stage in the OHP production, a dream figure, with her back to us, writhing her curvaceous body and smoking provocatively, before disappearing out of a door, out of Federico’s life forever. Her inclusion was unnecessary I felt, for she holds more power over the audience unseen. 

Sadly Rosa Mamai’s obsession with Federico, hoovers up any love she may have kept in reserve for her youngest boy, l’innocente, sung disarmingly well by Samantha Price. A simple soul, l’innocente feasts on tales of guiless goats and nasty wolves, all  recounted by grandfather, Baldassare, played sympathetically by Keel Watson. These tender moments are our only musical respite from the drag and pull of straining violin strings powering the drama along.

Cilea’s opera is beautiful in parts but it is far from perfect. OHP’s production reigns in the melodrama as best it can. And yet when Mamai clasps her hands together in Act 3 and sings Esser madre è un inferno, I knew why I had come. If you click on the Youtube link of the Renata Tebaldi recording, you will have some idea of Yvonne Howard’s fantastic live performance.

 

 

KH

Iolanta: Coming Into the Light

 

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Portrait of Peter Ilitsch Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Dimitriyevdi Kuznetsov 1893

 

Tchaikovsky’s philosophical and psychological opera, Iolanta, playing at Opera Holland Park, has been a big hit with critics and audiences alike this summer. It is easy to see why, with its starry line up of singers such as the soprano Natalya Romaniw together with tenor, David Butt-Philip (the two have wanted to sing together for quite some time!). These two, coupled with heavy-weight Russian bass, Mikhail Svetlov, had me rushing to go and see this little-known opera before it finished on August 3rd.

I admit to being a little worried about Iolanta’s story line at first, fearing its irrelevance to today’s audience as it had its origins in a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen ( I was greatly troubled by his stories as a child).

 It is the story of King René and the lengths he goes to to protect his daughter Iolanta, who is blind and blissfully unaware of the fact thanks to the King’s machinations. No one in his kingdom is to inform Iolanta of her visual impairment and if they do so, they face a death sentence! The weight of responsibility falls on ordinary citizens to check their language, ban colours, visual descriptions from their speech. The gagging order is played out on stage to shocking effect as rows of women bind their own mouths with their neck scarves! 

In the opening scene, Iolanta, played by Romaniw, loads her basket of fruit and falls inexplicably listless and tired. She wonders why her friends know she is crying without them having touched her eyes! Romaniw in an arioso of immense feeling contrasts her present restless state with her past happiness. Romaniw’s voice has everything. Beauty, power, shading, channelled emotion. In this scene, she conveyed all the vulnerability, sweetness, innocence, with that inimitable melancholic tone that only she can produce. 

A white-haired gentleman seated by me, produced a large handkerchief from the top pocket of his jacket and crushed it against his tear-stained cheek. 

The nurse Martha, played by a wonderful Laura Woods, tries to comfort Iolanta. Girls bring in flowers and sing a song about them, the scene ends in a beautiful trio with nurse and two friends who try to lull Iolanta to sleep. I was reeling from the rapturous, rich sound that was produced by all.

 

Ali Wright

Natalya Romaniw singing Iolanta at Opera Holland Park 2019 season

 

Most interestingly, the stage, designed by Takis, is minimalistic. Anything else would have been distracting and schmaltzy (I feared a fairy-tale landscape back drop!).  Composed of intersecting neon lit triangles and trees of lighted baubles, it reminds the audience of the darkness and light inhabiting the universe and possibly brings us back to Iolanta’s mindset, emphasising her visual limitations.

Svetlov, playing her father, produced magic on stage as only a Russian singing in his native language can do.  With his titanic bass, big stage presence, and strong but sympathetic character and tone, he produced many tears from the daughters in the audience. What it is to have a father who cares for you so much that he tries to adjust the world so that you won’t have to suffer!  He may be misguided, a censor – but he loves you that much!

I was particularly interested to hear David Butt-Philip singing Vaudémont, in the all important love duet with Romaniw. The moment critique when she presents him with two white roses instead of a red rose he has requested, was poignant and moving as it is the first time he realises that she is blind. Lost for words, he is numbed into temporary silence. Recovering, he sings of the beauty in nature. The climax comes as Vaudémont describes the importance of light in the world. Butt-Philip had the experience and vocal dexterity to scale up to those high notes cleanly. Butt-Philip bright , optimistic tenor voice was perfect for the role and complimented Romaniw’s mournful tones. In opera, the destructive side of love is often emphasised but in Iolanta it is love’s restorative and healing quality which comes through

Walking away through Holland Park after the grand finale, my head swelling with all the amazing score, my thoughts turned to Tchaikovsky who I imagined  hunched over his composition, late into the night. Did Iolanta allow him to approach the light of his true sexual orientation? Or was he hoping for others to be enlightened and more accepting in affairs of the heart. Who knows – but writing this opera must have been cathartic for him. It is an optimistic work offering hope and light to all of us.

A must if you haven’t seen this. Last two performances 1 and 3rd of August!

KH

Two performances left at Opera Holland Park. 1 and 3rd of August.

Classical Opera Goes Virtual

 

the-fire-of-olympus-poster-1600

Tim Benjamin is not the first composer to use digital sound and music in opera. Modern opera is all about experimentation and if you are a small opera company with constrained budgets, virtual is the way to go if you want a chorus in the score!

But this is not quite Tim Benjamin’s story, whose new opera, The Fire of Olympus is a contemporary reimagining of Prometheus’s story of stealing fire from Zeus and of Prometheus’s relationship with Pandora.

Thanks to an outreach programme funded by the Classical Association, Tim Benjamin was able to go in search of his chorus by travelling around the North of England this year. He visited choruses and choral societies with opera singer, Michael Jones, who plays Hephaestus in this production, and managed to amass 1,000 amateur singers! They turned out to be a very diverse crowd in the workshops but all of them embraced their role as Vox Populi in the classically-inspired opera Benjamin had written.

Once back from his UK wanderings, Benjamin assembled his recordings, comprising of song and the spoken word. In the properly staged 2hr opera you will be able to hear the finished product in surround sound.

I got a taster of what is to come the other evening when I went to listen to Tim Benjamin talk about the project and to hear his soloists perform the highlights.

Tim Benjamin was affable and engaging describing his journey into the musical genre. He had already written an opera on Emily Davison’s life (the suffragette who threw herself in front of the King’s horse). However it was his oratorio, Herakles, which got him thinking about Prometheus (if you know your mythology you will know that Heracles freed Prometheus from his eternal torment of having his liver pecked out by an eagle). The present opera backtrack to Prometheus’s story, before his spat with Zeus.

Four singers sat down in a row on stage. Over the speakers came a crescendoing babble (the chorus). Prometheus stood up. Sophie Dicks in a pulled-down hoodie, men’s shoes and trousers, was highly convincing as a man. She sang the mezzo-soprano role with conviction, power and intensity. The same could be said of Elspeth Marrow, singing the other ‘trouser-role’, that of of Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother. Both of the young women’s handling of the Handel-inspired score was impressive. So too were baritone, Robert Glyndwr Garland, Zeus and President of Olympus (the parallels to be drawn with Donald Trump are clear!), and soprano, Charlotte Hoather, singing Pandora. 

The libretto, sung in English, worked well mostly except when the aim was to shock and to bring us up to today’s zeitgeist. Pandora singing ‘A fuck is just a fuck’ jarred because she looked so demure! But maybe it is supposed to as at the end of the aria she is crying out for revolution!

What was really inspired was the weaving of the amalgamated chorus into the opera. When Prometheus sings in the finale, ‘What’s done is done… The fire will spread..’ You know we are all doomed!

What started out as an outreach programme for Tim Benjamin, has developed into a staged opera. In Brexit Britain composers are having to be more inventive in the way they raise money for their projects. Perhaps this is a good thing and will bring new blood and fresh ideas to a genre which seemed to be running out of steam not so long ago. No longer.

KH

For more information: https://radiusopera.org/productions/the-fire-of-olympus/

Olafur Eliasson’s Show: Pioneering and Powerful.

 

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Beauty 1993

A trip to the Tate Modern almost always involves me taking a left at the Turbine Hall where I know I will end up in familiar art territory, one which preferably involves paint! Going right on the other hand, into the Blavatnik Building, constitutes more of an art departure for me: tech art and design installations, dating from the 1990s, is often a step too far, but I figure that if I don’t try these things, I will age and get more set in my ways a lot faster!

And of course it was Olafur Eliasson’s solo show I had come to see, the artist who brought the sun to the Tate Modern in 2003.  HIs construct, required hundreds of lamps and lit up the Turbine Hall for 6 months. Amazingly it attracted 2 million visitors, most of whom returned many times. They had not only come to bask in the sun’s light but to lie back and gaze narcissistically at themselves and at others, in a large mirror installed above their heads. This installation not only transformed the austere Turbine hall into a friendlier place, but it also initiated another type of art, one which brought total strangers together.

Having listened to the Danish-Icelandic artist speak so eloquently about his latest artistic projects, his concerns for the environment and his love of human connection on radio, I wanted to see the art and design that accompanied the talk.

I walked out of the lifts floor 2 and was assailed by harsh, yellow strip lighting at the entrance to the show and also circled two multifaceted rotating orbs projecting their calm, mesh-like shadows onto the ceiling. The bulk of Eliasson’s work is inspired by the natural world, the earth and the elements such as light and water. Also maths. I entered a dimly lit room and peered into a vast glass cabinet. Hundreds of exquisitely fashioned, intricate, geometrical sculptures of paper, wood metal, marked Elliason’s collaboration with architect and mathematician Einar Thorsteinn (1942-2015), all prototypes for some of his architectural installations which are to be seen throughout the world. 

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Model Room 2003

The rooms following attested to Eliasson’s continual love affair with natural phenomena and preoccupation with climate change.

Room 7 entitled ‘Glacial works’ particularly impressed and moved me. Eliasson’s childhood experiences in Iceland and his preoccupation with the melting of glaciers has led him to produce Glacial spherical flare 2019. The circular dish on the wall, made up of rock particles created by glacial erosion, is composed of gorgeous green, gold, ruby disks. In the same room a sculpture entitled The presence of absence pavilion 2019, was a bronze cast of a ball of ice now disappeared. The sculpture was both delicate and devastating in its message.

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Glacial spherical flare 2019. (Dark shadows are my reflection!)

Eliasson is also interested in our perception of our world and our senses. Many of his installations use reflections, inversions, after-images and shifting colours. Water installation, Beauty 1993 (see Heading Image) took us into a moist cave-like interior. Iridescent violets and pinks flitted across the fine water spray. As we moved around the room, the rainbow colours came and went.

The colours of the spectrum also featured in Your uncertain shadow (colour) 2010, as our pink, violet, green, yellow silhouettes were projected onto a wall and moved with us. I was pleased to have sped past the convoy of journalists on the guided tour, who were told not to linger in the space simply because they would have blotted out everyone’s silhouettes! The room works best if you are three at the most! I am not sure how this show is going to be policed as this was not the only room where numbers need to be controlled.

Two simple pieces moved me the most and belonged together: a burning candle on a small, circular mirror entitled – as I grew up in solitude and silence 1991. The other a tall ‘rain’ window where rivulets of water streamed down continuously. Side by side they conjured up a slightly dull but peaceful rain-washed afternoon in childhood when one is left to flick through a book. This is probably Eliasson’s child growing up in Iceland but it is also all of our childhoods.

I found this an inspiring exhibition. Nothing felt arbitrary or gimmicky as it could be with this type of modern art probably because the craftsmanship was a consequence of years of experimental work, discussion and artistic collaboration. It had soul and meaning. And, there is no doubt about it – I felt connected to others viewing the works, especially in the fog tunnel. 

In the last few metres of the Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger) 2010 installation, I nearly knocked over a young man with a notepad. He looked up in surprise at seeing me suddenly appear through the fog. ‘I’ve been here for quite some time,’ he quipped. He had just heard me talking to a fellow woman traveller in the tunnel about heaven and end of life experiences. I laughed nervously, now desperate to get out of there! The fog tunnel is not for the claustrophobic!

A thought-provoking and beautiful show and good one to experience with friends and family. But try to go outside peak viewing times as the queues may be great for certain installations.

 

 

KH

 

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life is on at the Tate Modern until 5th January 2020.

The Strange World of Félix Vallotton

 

What exactly is going on in Félix Vallotton’s painting ‘Le Mensonge/The Lie’ (above)? A couple in evening dress are locked in an embrace in a plush interior. Yet all is not what it seems. Who’s the one being economical with the truth? Is it the woman, whose scarlet dress and serpentine pose ought by themselves to start alarm bells ringing, and who certainly seems to be whispering something in the man’s ear? Or is it the man, whose nonchalant body language and complacent smirk suggest that he knows more than he’s letting on? Or is Vallotton making a more general point about everyday falsehoods in relations between the sexes? And would we otherwise gather any of this without knowing the painting’s title?

Swiss-born but Paris-based, Vallotton (1865-1925) is little known in this country and the Royal Academy’s new show aims to set this right. The setting for his work is a fin-de-siècle world of furtive liaisons and forbidden desires, with a dash of Grand Guignol added the mix. He was friendly with, and exhibited alongside, ‘Nabi’ artists like Édouard Vuillard, and it’s almost as if the family from a cosy Vuillard interior had wandered into a Gaston Leroux shocker. The title of one of Vallotton’s paintings is ‘The Red Room’ but change the colour scheme and it could be the setting for Leroux’s ‘Mystery of the Yellow Room’. The associations aren’t merely literary – it’s no surprise that the novelist Julian Barnes is a big fan – but cinematic too: you’re reminded of the work of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock and, in fact, the RA is screening Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ in tandem with this exhibition.

 

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Félix Vallotton, Intimacies V: Money (Intimités V: L’Argent), 1898. Xylograph, 25 x 32.3 cm. Ville de Genève, Musées d’art et d’histoire, Don Lucien Archinard. © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

 

Vallotton is probably seen at his best in his prints and small-scale works. During the 1890s he mostly made a living as an illustrator, working for the literary magazine ‘La Revue Blanche’. The series he did called ‘Intimacies’, with titles like ‘Money’, ‘Irreparable’ and ‘The Confession’, dissects the private lives of the Parisian bourgeoisie in ways that to Julian Barnes suggests ‘deep emotional dissonance’. In the process Vallotton played an important part in the revival of the woodcut, using a pared-down style with strong contrasts of black and white, influenced, as so many of his contemporaries were, by Japanese graphic art. How much did he also owe to Aubrey Beardsley? A lot of their work seems rather similar to me. There’s a print here of a nude on a bed playing with a cat which I thought at first was a Beardsley (who, incidentally, will be the subject of a show at Tate Britain next year).

 

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Félix Vallotton, Bathing on a Summer Evening (Le Bain au soir d’été), 1892-93. Oil on canvas, 97 x 131 cm. Kunsthaus Zürich. Gottfried Keller Foundation, Federal Office of Culture, Bern. Acquired 1965. © Kunsthaus Zürich

 

In 1898 Vallotton married a wealthy widow, which freed him from financial worries, often a mixed blessing, creatively speaking, for artists. It was the beginning of a slippery slope. He decided to concentrate on the female nude, which meant, in essence, variations on Manet, Courbet and, above all, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Statuesque and inert, they’re fairly typical of the Paris Salon in its dotage. He also did portraits. But compare Vallotton’s humdrum portrait of Gertrude Stein (1907) – she called him ‘a Manet for the impecunious’ – to Picasso’s penetrating characterisation of her, painted two years earlier. By the end of this show I was tired of Vallotton’s acid palette, those icy nudes, the relentless stagecraft and, quite frankly, the vast quality gap between him and his idol Ingres. The final room, featuring his late still lives and landscapes, isn’t so much disquieting as just plain odd.

All the same, this is far from a duff exhibition, and if you enjoy your art with a frisson, you’ll certainly get one here. The RA in recent years has done yeoman’s work in shedding light on Honoré Daumier, James Ensor and other under-appreciated, oddball talents. And you’ll leave this show feeling that you’ve learnt enough about an artist who, while a suitable subject for the Sackler Galleries, is never going to make it to the main galleries downstairs.

 

NM

 

Félix Vallotton, Painter of Disquiet at the Royal Academy of Arts to 29 September 2019

Header image: Félix Vallotton, The Lie (Le Mensonge), 1897. Oil on cardboard, 24 x 33.4 cm. The Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.298. Photography: Mitro Hood

 

Key 47
Félix Vallotton, Red Peppers (Poivrons rouges), 1915. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

 

Pietà by Richard Blackford – world premiere at Poole Lighthouse

Pietà by Richard Blackford

Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-sopranno

Stephen Gadd, baritone

Amy Dickson, saxophone

with Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Youth Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gavin Carr


The Stabat Mater, a Medieval hymn which portrays Mary’s suffering as Christ’s mother during his Crucifixion, has been set to music by numerous composers, most notably Pergolesi, Schubert, Dvořák, Pärt and Macmillan. In this new setting, Pietà, a co-commission from the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and St. Albans Choral Society, British composer Richard Blackford interweaves the text of the Stabat Mater with poems from the ‘Requiem’ cycle by Anna Akhmatova, whose husband was taken away and ‘disappeared’ by Stalin’s KGB; her son was also arrested and she feared she would never see him again. In our troubled, turbulent times, contemporary Pietàs are tragically all too familiar – refugee parents desperately cradling babies and children, mourning mothers in war-torn towns and cities, the anger and grief of victims of tragedies like the Manchester Arena terrorist attack or the Grenfell Tower fire…. Through the settings of Akhmatova’s poetry, Blackford makes the Stabat Mater a universal reflection on grief and loss – and the attendant rage, pain and incomprehension.

Blackford chose the title after seeing Michelangelo’s marble Pietà in Rome, and like the sculpture, his new work encompasses grief, rage and sorrow with tenderness, poignancy and, ultimately, beauty and hope. The work is scored for string orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, mezzo-soprano, baritone and solo saxophone. While the chorus and soloists present the main narrative, the pain and grief of Mary and Anna Ahkmatova, the saxophone provides a third, abstract voice, the voice of every grieving mother.

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Michelangelo’s Pietà (St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome)

Pietà was preceded in the first half by Faure’s Requiem which was given a meditative, other-worldly performance by the excellent BSO Chorus under Gavin Carr, with soloists Issie Curchin and Stephen Gadd. This provided a wonderful foil to Blackford’s music, which is intellectual and sophisticated, yet accessible in its use of carefully-crafted melody and counterpoint. Rooted in tonality and modality, Pietà is characterised by rhythmic dynamism, breadth of expression and lush textures, redolent of Janácek. The use of a children’s choir (in the fifth movement of the work) is a nod to another of Blackford’s main influences – Benjamin Britten – and provides an episode of innocence and sweetness in this grief-scorched narrative.

With powerful, operatic singing by mezzo Jennifer Johnston and baritone Stephen Gadd, a fine, emotionally engaging performance by the BSO and BSO Chorus (whose intonation, timing and precision was impressive), the entire work has a filmic visual quality with its clear narrative and highly descriptive scoring – tumultuous strings, passionate dramatic climaxes, ‘snapping’ pizzicato in the cellos (to represent Christ’s flagellation), jagged syncopated rhythms, an acapella movement of intense concentration and beauty. Organised in three parts, Pietà moves from grief and rage to redemption and hope via nine distinct movements. The obligato saxophone, eloquently played by Amy Dickson, provides a unifying link between the movements, initially haunting, mournful and timeless, evocative of an ancient shawm, and later calm and tender as the music moves towards its hopeful, redemptive close. Blackford chose the soprano saxophone to create “a modern inistrumental dimension, very close to the sound of the human voice”.

This arresting, emotionally-intense and accessible work for choir and orchestra receives its London premiere at Cadogan Hall on 19th October. A recording on the Nimbus Label is expected very soon.


Meet the Artist interview with Richard Blackford