Baroque in our time

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Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36)

Christmas is nearly upon us and time for the Requiems, the Stabat Maters, to be performed in concert halls and churches up and down the country. Now, more so than ever, audiences, can’t seem to be able to get enough of these religious works. Their familiar musical settings are popular for a reason. Audiences are of course drawn to the sheer gorgeousness of the music. Both lyrical and dramatic, and accessible, even for the first-time concert goer, it is no surprise that Vivaldi, Pergolesi and Handel form an essential part of the choral cannon.

I took myself off to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for an evening of ‘Sacred Baroque’ featuring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Vivaldi’s Gloria. Seeing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform together with opera star, Iestyn Davies, was an enthralling prospect . I had recently seen Davies in Handel’s sell out Agrippina at Royal Opera, had been transfixed by his Ottone and his duet with the wonderful Lucy Crowe.

The Stabat Mater is a choral work however, but with noticeable operatic frills. A sober start develops into one of the most dramatic pieces of its kind. It is a medieval hymn about the grief the Virgin Mary felt for her son at his crucifixion. There have been many Stabat Mater musical settings but it is Pergolesi’s composition which most people remember. My first experience of the sublime work was  in sensurround sound in a cinema in Paris. I still remember my teenage mind been blown away by hearing it in Milos Forman’s Amadeus.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall the OAE musicians walked out from the wings. There is something so aesthetically pleasing about a compact baroque ensemble, the period instruments, the neat harpsichord with tiny keyboard; the violins, violas with their reddish hues, wind instruments. All of this in a beautiful setting. I hadn’t been to the QEH auditorium since its tasteful restoration. Wood panelling everywhere and walls that stretch back in accordion-like fashion from the stage to sharpen the acoustic.

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Queen Elizabeth Hall

A man walked out, clearly not a member of the ensemble. Had Iestyn Davies, ‘the star draw’ bowed out at the last minute? I held my breath. Soprano, Katherine Watson, was nursing a cold, we were told. But she had decided to go ahead and sing the Pergolesi and not Vivaldi’s Gloria, scheduled after the interval. 

The audience’s relief was palpable. Would Watson’s voice hold though? She appeared in a ravishing dress of midnight blue, putting on a brave face. Davies meanwhile, with gelled, sticking out hair, looked positively boyish in his close-fitting suit. With a poppy in his lapel to remind us of Armistice Day, he was all set for Pergolesi’s melancholic piece.

The opening section of Stabat Mater set the sombre mood with each voice taking turns to express sorrow in ever rising and interlocking dissonances. In the duets, Davies, seem to display great emotional intelligence, careful to calibrate his voice with Watson’s soprano. Cold notwithstanding, Watson’s voice is outstanding; lyrical, with a divine quality, and yet she was singing at three-quarter mast. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for her in 2020.

As you would expect, Iestyn, made light of the tricky vocal ornamentation and acrobatics that Pergolesi’s music demands. The counter-tenor’s mastery is awe inspiring, his enunciation superb and all the while he manages to maintain that centred core. Even more fascinating however was to see him connect with the audience, swivelling his body round almost one hundred and eighty degrees, working the whole room. You cannot underestimate the impact of really engaging with your audience these days. It is the secret to building up a solid following which Davies has done and needs to continue to do as he’ll be leaving these shores for a while to sing in the US.

Other highlights were oboe-player extraordinaire, OAE’s Katharina Sprekelsen, showing mastery of her instrument in Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in D minor.

Soprano, Rowan Pierce meanwhile demonstrated a purity and sweetness of voice in Domine Deus, rex coelestis (O Lord god, heavenly king) in Vivaldi’s Gloria.  Vivaldi’s upbeat, celebratory composition was the perfect antidote to the heart-rending Stabat Mater.

The Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, many of whom are soloists in their own right, showed complete command of their craft and their voices were well-balanced throughout. Together with the OAE orchestra, and under Steven Devine’s direction, the overall effect was a heady combination of professionalism and soul.

I very much look forward to the continuation of Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment’s Salvation and Damnation season in 2020. See here https://oae.co.uk/season/2019-20-season/  Highly recommended.

 

KH

 https://crosseyedpianist.com/2019/11/06/early-music-is-getting-younger/

Pietà Power at the Cadogan Hall

 

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Saturday night, late October, and there’s a chill in the air, and it’s not all down to weather! Brexit dramas, political deadlock, dire economic and climatic warnings have filled the day. I’m relieved to put those eerily dark streets off Sloane street behind me, and to step into the warmly lit Cadogan Hall.

I’ve come to see Pietà, a choral work by Richard Blackford, which is getting its London premiere tonight. I do enjoy choral music; a Handel, Verdi or Mozart Requiem will set off the Christmas season nicely, provided the choir is polished and the work is performed in a warm, comfortable venue (all of which I was expecting to get this evening). I have spent too many Christmases shivering in churches, listening to, or singing the same works for my own choir!

Having interviewed Blackford prior to the performance, I was very much looking forward to seeing Pietà performed live. I knew that the composer had used the traditional Stabat Mater hymn as his starting point.To the hymn for the grieving Mary, whose son has been crucified on the Cross, Blackford added poems by the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova wrote them in a state of heightened anxiety, when she thought she had lost her own son to the KGB during the Stalin purges. Introducing this new element, Blackford hoped to bring audiences closer to the subject. Akhmatova was an ordinary mother after all – one with which the audience could easily identify and empathise with. See my interview here: Pietà Premieres in London: Interview with composer Richard Blackford.

In the audience at the Cadogan, I watched a choir of one hundred and ten singers walk out on stage with thirty-six violin, viola and cello musicians. Members of the children’s choir were already in position in the the dress circle. Mezzo soprano,  Catherine Wyn Rogers, appeared last with baritone, Huw Montague Rendall. Reigning above them all, in her own gallery above the stage, stood soprano saxophonist, Amy Dickson, in a resplendent gold dress. Together with conductor Gavin Carr, they all formed a perfect tableau.

For the opening prelude, the strings, and the cello theme set the mournful tone. The strings playing in their extreme upper register ratcheted up the tension. The choir  entered with a hushed pianissimo before crescendoing slowly and inexorably.“Through her weeping soul…./A sword passed”, they sang, expressing Mary’s visceral pain as she watches her son’s crucifixion. Lines like these are not forgotten in a hurry.

As you may have gathered by now, Blackford’s composition is not your usual slow and contemplative Stabat Mater, as you might get with Pergolesi for instance.

The second movement with its rocking string rhythm, over which Amy Dickson’s soprano sax rode so hauntingly, took my breath away. Blackford’s use of the soprano saxophone in an obligato role, was a stroke of genius. Dickson’s instrument is pivotal in the work. One minute accompanying the strings and establishing a dialogue with them; the next echoing  the emotions of the mezzo soprano. At key moments, Dickson’s instrument follows its own serene path, riding high above the drama taking place around her. Her melodies full of pathos are most memorable in the final two movements.

At the concert I was also struck by how well Blackford writes for singers. He chooses them well too. Tonight Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ mezzo voice suited Akhmatova’s anxiety-ridden, ‘Weeks fly swiftly by’. The syncopated rhythms were not easy, however Wyn-Rogers executed them perfectly. Huw Montague Rendall’s baritone conjoined well with Wyn-Rogers’ burnished tones in the tender duet in Fact me mecum pie flere – I would have liked more duets but I’m betraying my love of opera here!

Most impressive was the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus. Having already performed the work at the Lighthouse, Poole, the BSC was by now a slick operation. Most memorable was the a cappella piece in Akhmatova’s poem A Chorus of Angels Sang. I closed my eyes and the chorus’s melded voices transported me back to Easter Mass at the Russian Orthodox Church in la Rue Daru, Paris, where my Georgian grandmother used to take us as children. My mother, accompanying me on the night, told me that she had had the same reaction and had shed several tears.

 

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Russian Orthodox Church, la rue Daru, Paris.

With Pietà Blackford has produced a work of tremendous passion, drama and tenderness. The children’s choral interlude was a complete joy to listen to. So poignant though as well, as images of snow, Christmas and of war-torn territories and motherless children, crowded my mind. This was no accident, the composer intended it this way.

Conductor, Gavin Carr was magnificent on the night. He had a job on his hands: two choirs in different spaces, string orchestra at his feet, soprano sax up above in the gallery, two new soloists who had probably only had one rehearsal as is usually the case. And Carr engaged all the performers with expert precision. I felt that every single musician and singer in the room had the utmost respect for him and the work. Furthermore they loved what they were performing.

This is an exciting work to see live and to perform as a choir. Highly recommended.

KH

A recording of Pietà is available on Nimbus Records, featuring the original soloists from the premiere at The Lighthouse, Poole, the extraordinary mezzo, Jennifer Johnston (Bayerische Staatsoper) and the much in demand on the opera circuit, baritone, Stephen Gadd. Also available for Download and Streaming. 

For choirs: Study Score, Vocal Score and Orchestral Parts are available to purchase and hire from Nimbus Music Publishing.

My interview with Richard Blackford : 

Pietà Premieres in London: Interview with composer Richard Blackford

 

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In June 2019 Frances Wilson reviewed Pietà, a new choral work by Richard Blackford for The Cross-Eyed Pianist. Drawing on the theme of maternal grief and loss, Blackford took as his starting point the Stabat Mater. It is a hymn to Mary, and portrays her suffering as Jesus Christ’s mother at his crucifixion. In his exploration of maternal grief, Blackford decided to add Anna Akhmatova’s cycle of poems, Requiem, to the libretto. Written in 1938 when her son Lev was arrested by Stalin’s secret police, they are a record of the anguish she felt when she believed that she had lost him for good. 

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Portrait of Anna Akhmatova 1914 by Nathan Altman. State Russian Museum

At Pietà’s world premiere, at the Lighthouse, Poole, the musicians and solo singing artists performed to a packed house and received a standing ovation.

In anticipation of Pietà’s London premiere at Cadogan Hall on the 19th October, Karine Hetherington of artmuselondon.com interviewed the composer, Richard Blackford.

When did you first start working on Pietà? And what were the creative stages of the work?

In 2017. It was following a visit to Rome where I saw the famous Michelangelo statue in St Peter’s. What struck me was how moving and sad the story of Pietà was, of Mary cradling her crucified son. I wondered how something so sad, could be also so beautiful and so inspiring in so many ways.

I decided to set the Stabat Mater text, although I was aware it had been set over 200 times. At the same time I was moved by stories about mothers losing their children in the Syrian war. I couldn’t quite finalise my approach to it until I found some poems by Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet. She wrote a series of poems called Requiem when her son was taken away by the KGB. In them she used very strong Stabat Mater imagery.

How do you work and how long did it take to complete Pietà?

I immerse myself in one work at a time. I block out everything and work very long hours. Getting into it is the hardest thing but once the first of the movements was written for Pietà, I had a handle on the musical language.

It took five months in all to write. It would have taken longer if I had had a full orchestra. This was written for string orchestra and soprano saxophone.

How did it come to you?  Generally composing do you start with words or music?

In this case it was the words first. I wasn’t sure where Anna Akhmatova’s poems would come in or how many poems I would set. Two of them are in fact set back to back in one huge mezzo aria. The other poem I found extraordinary was when Akhmatova wrote “A chorus of angels sang/In that momentous hour”. I thought, the music I write for this mustn’t be saccharine. These are no Hollywood angels! I wanted a tumultuous cry of avenging angels. I wanted it to be more about the mother’s rage. I decided that my setting of the Stabat Mater which is normally slow and meditative, was going to be dramatic. As well as grief, it was going to be about rage and finally acceptance. It would be about earning a place in paradise, not just being granted redemption for no particular reason. I think it gives the music an edge.

Do you play different instruments? How are you able to write for other instruments?

Well I’m a pianist – not a very good one. I used to play percussion, the viola for a few years. But I’ve been a professional conductor all my life and so as a composer and conductor it’s just part of the job to know how to score for every instrument. I’ve always tried to write for instruments and voices, music that is good to play and good to sing. If it’s well written for them – to me – that’s part of the job.

Do you need absolute quiet to work in?

I really do. I’m lucky enough to have a studio in my house in Oxfordshire. I work eight or nine hour days with perhaps a walk around the village in between. When my wife comes home from work she asks me to play back what I’ve written. Sometimes she’ll just nod. Sometimes she’ll say: “I’ve got a real sense of where that’s going”. Her opinion as a listener is very important to me although she is not classically trained. It’s nice because it can be a very lonely path being a composer.

When you are composing, do you stop listening to other music?

That’s a good question. I don’t deliberately stop listening to other music. Perhaps a better way to answer your question is to say that before I start a piece, I do a lot of research. In other words when I was writing the  Stabat Mater, I did listen to a dozen Stabat Maters, including contemporary settings as well, in order to have an insight into how other composers have treated the same text. Research is something I learned through doing my PhD in music. Research is not only necessary but is also very pleasurable.

Is composing a necessity for you? Do you have breaks when you are not  composing?

It is a necessity. Whether it’s composing or being creative in another way, it’s the only thing I really know how to do. I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I start to get cranky if I’m not composing or researching.

Pietà premiered at the Lighthouse, Poole in June this year. What was it like hearing it being performed for the first time?

I knew musically how it would sound as it’s my job to know that. What is impossible to anticipate is particularly how the soloists will interpret your work. I wasn’t prepared for the power of Jennifer Johnston’s interpretation of Anna Akhmatova’s poems [Her mezzo-soprano part will be sung by Catherine Wyn-Rogers at the Cadogan Hall] . I hate the expression but they “blew me away”! I wasn’t prepared for how sweet and moving the children’s chorus was because the Stabat Mater is a bleak, dark piece and yet I try to bring elements of light into it. The children’s chorus is like finding water in the desert.

Are you sensitive to different music venues? Pietà will be performed at the Cadogan Hall this month.

In some ways the sound may be more powerful at Cadogan Hall because it’s smaller. In the Cadogan Hall you will be able to hear the words more clearly. My feeling about performance is that once we’ve recorded it, and we have recorded it with Nimbus records, then I let it go. Then if another conductor wants to take it faster or slower, I don’t mind at all because the work has a life of its own then. At least the recording is how I intended it.

Any mad projects in the pipeline?

Very odd that you should ask that! I’m working on a very large orchestral commission about madness. I’m writing a piece for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales about British artist, Richard Dadd, the Victorian painter who was schizophrenic. He murdered his father and was confined to Bethlehem hospital in the mid 19th century. The governor of the asylum saw that he was a hugely talented artist and gave him paints and canvases. For forty years he produced extraordinary paintings. He has works in Tate Britain. The piece is about the thin line between creativity and madness and also how art can redeem someone.

Well we may be coming back to you to ask you about this when it’s finished!

In the meantime I look forward to Pietà’s London premiere at the Cadogan Hall, Saturday 19th October. 

For tickets : https://cadoganhall.com/whats-on/bournemouth-symphony-chorus-2019/

Benjamin Britten and the Challenge of Singing

 

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Portrait of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten  by Kenneth Green 1943

 

The voice is an extraordinary thing. Air pumped from our lungs, passes over the fleshy folds in our throat, to emit a full spectrum of sounds. Some more pleasing than others.

Last weekend I shouted and screamed so hard at a football match that I I woke up hoarse!

Professional singers cannot afford to lose their most precious asset – their money spinning, life-enhancing, voice. They will go to great lengths to protect it and spend decades training it to be as versatile as possible; to weather all musical challenges.

And even then they worry: When I interviewed star baritone, Jacques Imbrailo, at the Royal Opera House recently Interview: Star Baritone Jacques Imbrailo , Imbrailo talked about what many professional singers at all levels feel about contemporary music, that it has to be handled with great care. 

New operas are sometimes frustrating to prepare for, rhythmically and harmonically. For him the old composers wrote better for the voice. This didn’t stop him earning himself great reviews in Britten’s Billy Budd both at Glynebourne and at the Royal Opera House.

Benjamin Britten, although not absolutely modern (he died in December 1976) had a way of testing his singers, notably tenor Peter Pears, who was also his life partner.

On September 21st, I attended the opening of the Kensington Olympia Music Festival of Music and the Arts  (KOFMA) where an ambitious programme of Britten Song Cycles had been chosen to wet our palates this season. It was an interesting choice of programme, for not only are Britten’s songs a challenging sing, but they are not always easy for audiences, unfamiliar with the work.

I had never heard Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, which Britten wrote in 1940 during his time in the United States. Britten dedicated it to Peter Pears, who was much daunted by the prospect of singing the work which required formidable agility in the vocal range. Pears, who was at the beginning of his career, gave himself time to prepare, and didn’t sing Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo in public until September 1942 at the Wigmore Hall. 

At the KOFMA opening I attended, James Black’s tenor voice, with its warm, rich tones, were gorgeousness incarnate. Perfectly suited to sing Britten’s extended love letter to Peter Pears, Black’s performance had however two tiny chinks. Several squeaks after he had hit certain notes cleanly. I am no expert on why this happened but these so-called slips added authenticity to the anguished emotions Britten was endeavouring to express. Black’s performance is one which I will remember – it was so emotionally charged.

Young soprano (22 years of age) Bonnie Callaghan sang On This Island. Of note was the achingly beautiful Nocturne which she sang to perfection.

The high point of the evening was Britten’s late work Phaedra which he dedicated to Dame Janet Baker. Its full title is Op.93 Dramatic Cantata for Mezzo-Soprano. And dramatic it is. It not only requires virtuosity with the voice but fine acting skills. The audience needs to believe that the singer is Phaedra, married to Theseus and in love with her step son Hippolytus, and suffering much on account of the shame she feels for transgressing social mores.

If anyone was going to pull off the work, it was Irish mezzo-soprano Laura Lamph. I have been following her career with interest for the past five years. As a solo artist she has taken on operatic roles such as Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Dido must have prepared her psychologically for Phaedra, (Dido and Phaedra are tormented queens who both decide to take their own lives). Dido however is an easier sing. 

On the evening in question in St Peter’s Church, Lamph’s performance was quite mesmerising. She came to the stage, her face whitened, her black eye-liner accentuating Phaedra’s mad, staring eyes. Without stage props or orchestra, simply a piano to accompany her (the accompanist Miles Lallement is the best in the business) the audience was transported inside her tormented mind.

Meanwhile here is Janet Baker’s Phaedra live recording with orchestra.

 

There is no doubt, Phaedra is an exciting challenge for the mezzo willing to throw herself into the role. It is not for the faint-hearted.

In the end, it is up to singers to decide what roles they want to take on and how they want to sing them. Or is it? Singers are not always in a position to choose. They need to earn a living and put food on the table.

Curious to see how one prepares for a virtuosic, ‘difficult sing’ in this case, Benjamin Britten’s Phaedra, I went to talk about it with Laura Lamph the following day of her performance.

Why did you decide to sing Britten’s Phaedra?

I had originally thought of singing a selection of Britten folk songs but it was suggested by my teacher (Ashley Stafford) and accompanist Miles Lallemant that I should think about singing Phaedra. I thought, why not use the opportunity to challenge myself and the audience. 

What did you think of it at first and what made you think you could do it?

I listened to Janet Baker and Sarah Connolly perform it and I thought, Wow, that is class – I need to sing it. I had a few concerns about the fact that it is quite high as I am not always keen to use the upper limits of my voice. My other thought was whether it would work with piano but I chatted with Miles and we decided that for this particular occasion it would work.

Do you like singing difficult repertoire?

Interesting question, It depends on why it is difficult. Because I am not always in control of the repertoire I perform, I sing quite a lot of difficult music, sometimes I don’t love it all. Basically, I like it if it is worth the effort involved in learning it! Phaedra is an amazing work, so cleverly written and was 100% worth it!

Did you receive help in your preparation? 

Yes, I rehearsed with Miles and the piano and had some lessons working specifically on this piece.

What are the particular difficulties of the piece?

Some people might not find it difficult but for me I would say the extremes of range, the chromatic passages and the frequent changes in time. I worked quite a lot on my character as the presentation in a piece like this makes such a difference.

Did just having the piano for accompaniment make it harder?

I am not sure really as I have not tried it with the orchestra but I would say that I probably had a lot more opportunity to practice with the piano than I would have otherwise. I would definitely like to try it with the other instruments at some point.

Are you protective of your voice?

In my own way I am but you have to live and singing is a big part of my life but not my whole life. I don’t do anything weird and I try not to worry about it too much as I am convinced you can worry yourself into frequent vocal crisis. I am not always at 100% but I always sing unless I am in a bad way, if I didn’t I would be in financial crisis! However, I do try not to party or be wild before a big performance.

Is there some repertoire you refuse to sing because it’s not healthy for the voice?

There have been a couple of occasions were composers ask for strange things to create a certain effect and I know they are not great for my voice, particularly if I have to do them repeatedly.  I usually try and find a cheat or assure the director that I will do it in performance but can certainly not sustain it in days of rehearsal. 

Would you like to perform Phaedra again?

I definitely want to do it again! I am already thinking about a programme I could make it work as part of or possibly even recording it at some point.

KH

 

Kollwitz’s War and Grief at the British Museum

Käthe Kollwitz Woman with dead child, 1903,© The Trustees of the British Museum

‘Woman with Dead Child, 1903. Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945)

 

Käthe Kollwitz, née Schmidt, is not a name I had come across in the art world until the British Museum’s show. 

Born in 1867, in Königsberg, East Prussia, Kollwitz established herself as a leading, influential graphic artist by the time the First World War came about. Her travels to communist China and Russia, and finally to USA in the mid nineteen-thirties, consolidated her reputation abroad, which probably explains why she is virtually unknown in the UK.

But she was always going to succeed in the male-dominated art world she grew up in. Having been raised by progressive parents, who encouraged debate and self-expression at home, she was never going to be a wallflower! And there was much to discuss in this period of social and political unrest.

At art school in Berlin and then in Munich, she focussed on drawing, believing it to be the best medium for conveying what she had to say and feel about the injustices of society. Her father, who was supportive of her career, was not by the same token supportive of her marrying. A proposal from a medical student, Karl Kollwitz, got given short shrift. Interestingly, the Munich School for Women Artists she attended dissuaded female students from forming romantic liaisons with men. Celibacy was not only encouraged but a rule of the institution.

Independent-minded Käthe finally jumped ship after producing her first print in 1890. She went ahead and married Karl Kollwitz who was now a doctor. His practice took them to a deprived part of Berlin.

It is no surprise, given Kollwitz’s concerns, that the poor and down-trodden would dominate her early work. 

At the show I was swept up in the drama of her etchings and lithographs of revolt. In Bauernkrieg (Peasants’ War): Losbruch (Outbreak) we see a woman with her back to us, sinewy arms and fists held aloft, firing up an army of men charging with pitchforks. Great stuff! 

Käthe Kollwitz, Losbruch (Outbreak), 1903 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Weavers’ Revolt series, where she follows the uprising, backroom plotting and anguished family scenes, is also arresting and earned her an art prize. A lithograph entitled Tod (Death) shows a dimly lit room, where a man sits, his face, a mask of grief, shock and exhaustion.

Kollwitz’s images are never neutral. In her evocations of war, produced post 1917, her heart and focus is always with the civilian. Mothers offer their children up as sacrifices. Parents huddle together in grief. Mothers form a tight circle around their children. ‘The Mothers’ is an image which has stayed with me.

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‘The Mothers’ by Käthe Kollwitz (1922-23)

The works are heart-rending as you would expect them to be and the use of the wood-cuts, the grooves and crude lines, have a primitive quality, one which perfectly conveys the starkness of the WW1 nightmare.

When I was there, the curator, Frances Carey, drew our attention to a searingly emotional lithograph entitled ‘Woman With Dead Child’ (See Header Image)

 It is a self-portrait of Kollwitz with her son Peter from 1903 . She executed it in front of a mirror, much to her young son’s annoyance I imagine, who was told to keep still. A woman embraces her lifeless child with mad passion. Peter was to die on the Western Front in 1914.

Her son’s death confirmed Kollwitz’s pacifist outlook.

In Berlin today, in front of the Neue Wache (a museum dedicated to the victims of war), you will see an enlarged version of Kollwitz’s sculpture entitled Pietà, featuring a mother with dead son (1937-39). I will certainly be going there on my next trip.

One of the most moving exhibitions I have seen in a long while. Well worth a visit.

And if you need a little cheering … walk into the British Museum’s Pushing Paper: Contemporary Drawing from 1970, next door. It is a neat, colourful, and thought-provoking, themed show. The ‘Identity’ section, containing works by Tracy Emin, Grayson Perry and David Hockney is of particular interest.

 

 

KH

‘Portrait of the artist: Käthe Kollwitz’ and ‘Pushing Paper: Contemporary Drawing from 1970 to Now’ are on until 12 January 2020. In Room 90 of the British Museum. Both are free entry shows.

 

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

 

The Power of Music and Birdsong

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Southwark Cathedral and London Bridge surrounded by fields around 1548

 

Man has always been enraptured by birdsong. The nightingale’s song is not only a thing of rare beauty but a complex affair. Naturalists have likened the nightingale’s musical talents to that of a jazz musician, who is able to improvise on several instruments at once! 

I was therefore horrified to hear recently of the 90 per cent decline in the nightingale population. The statistics for birds are grim overall: 67 species have disappeared in the past 50 years amounting to about 40 million birds.

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Of course we have all noticed how silent our city parks have become. If it wasn’t for the shrieking parakeets which have populated London in the last 15 years, our green spaces would be nearly silent.

With these sad thoughts running through my mind, I attended a bird-inspired musical event, Absolute Bird, held at Southwark Cathedral. It was hosted by our capital’s most forward-looking orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia.  The orchestra, made up of 40 outstanding professional musicians, has always believed in the transformative powers of music in all sectors of our society and this evening was no exception. Their mission tonight was to educate, entertain and inspire us with bird-inspired works and BBC wild-life presenter, Miranda Krestovnikoff, seen on BBC Ones’s The One Show, and President of RSPB, was brought on board to provide us with essential bird facts.

We had all received digital downloads of familiar songbirds on our mobile phones. Krestovnikoff explained that from April, for two months, birds in the breeding season, speak to each other through birdcalls and songs to warn about danger, woo their mates or protect their nests. The bird with the best song, gets his pick of mates and prime nesting sites.

 Asked to choose one bird song out of eleven on offer, I opted for the great tit, going for appearance as well as song. My friends either side of me, pressed ‘house sparrow’ and ‘nightingale’ (the Nation’s favourite).

We got up and were encouraged to take a walk around the Cathedral. Circling the nave, we started to weave in and out of the pillars (whose original design had been modelled on trees), our phones tweeting at full volume. Passing Shakespeare’s memorial, I stopped to admire the exquisite stained-glass window above it, inspired by his plays. I carried on along my way and focussed on the crescendoing dawn chorus we were in effect reproducing. Not since I was a teenager, had I heard the full orchestra of birds!

 

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Shakespeare’s Window in Southwark Cathedral

Back in our seats, we settled down to the musical performance. First off, some early renaissance and baroque music by Daquin, Janequin and Couperin. Le Rossignol en Amour (The Cuckoo in Love) by Couperin, was particularly enchanting, played on flute and theorbo, a large, extended lute. The flute’s trilling mimicked perfectly the cuckoo’s song and showed how the simpler tune gets to the core of the bird’s sound.

Rameau’s Movement from The Hen (La Poule) was a joy, played with humour and gusto by the strings with first violinist, Alexandra Wood at the helm, ensuring precision timing. 

 

Haydn’s Symphony no. 83, also named The Hen followed, this time with full orchestra. The second subject in the first movement artfully evoked the jerky back-and forth head motion of a walking hen.

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More serious in tone was Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A Major, The Cuckoo and also the First movement of Spring, from The Four Seasons. The divine sound of soaring strings filled the airy Cathedral which had been so beautifully lit for the occasion, the stone of the upper galleries glowing in a warm yellow light.

At the end of this inspiring programme I walked over to a sound sculpture on a raised stage in the middle nave. On three branches perched three plump birds, carved of wood. A black box emitted tiny flickering lights beneath it.

Gawain Hewitt, proud author of this interactive, sonic piece has worked with young people of Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School on The Absolute Bird project, getting their musical input, recording it and coding it. The benefits of music on mental health is a growing field and City of London Sinfonia seem to be at the forefront of this very exciting initiative.

I picked up two birds and moved them to another branch. As I did so different ethereal sounds and snatches of birdsong came through the black music box. In all, there were 33 variations of a dawn chorus.

Not surprisingly the project has been a huge success with children who have suffered great trauma and brain injuries.

I left the concert feeling warmed and moved by what I had heard and the next morning found myself rushing into my garden to record a song thrush singing in my neighbour’s tree.

KH

To find out more about City of London Sinfonia orchestra: https://cityoflondonsinfonia.co.uk

And https://cityoflondonsinfonia.wordpress.com/2019/01/31/the-influence-of-absolute-bird/

RSPB (Royal Society of Protection of Birds) : https://www.rspb.org.uk

Southwark Cathedral has perfect acoustics. What’s on : https://cathedral.southwark.anglican.org/whats-on/