Hope springs eternal in jam-packed concert season at National Centre for Early Music

Cantoria: Celebrating Early Music Day with El Jubilate concert on March 18

THE Spring Season is up and running at the National Centre for Early Music, Walmgate, York.

In a busy first week, last Monday, folkloric duo Heal & Harrow’s Rachel Newton and Lauren MacColl paid a humanising tribute to those persecuted in the 16th and 17th century Scottish witch trials.

Last Friday, the Grace Smith Trio – Smith on fiddle, Sam Patridge, concertina, and Bevan Morris, double bass – performed with the participants in the National Youth Folk Ensemble (NYFE) programme, under the artistic direction of Partridge. The NCEM hosted the NYFE’s first residency in two years for workshops leading up to the concluding concert.

Saturday’s University of York Song Day took the theme of Shakespeare In Love in a programme devised by pianist and Ryedale Festival director Christopher Glynn, who was joined in a lunchtime concert by soprano Rowan Pierce and tenor Ed Lyon and later by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge in a masterclass for student singers.

Moishe’s Bagel: Door-to-door delivery of klezmer and folk music on March 9

The University of York Baroque+ Day will follow on June 4 with the theme of 100 Years In Berlin: a day to explore the musical life of the Prussian capital – from the Baroque to the early Romantic period – in three concerts in the company of the University Baroque Ensemble, under the direction of Rachel Gray and guest leader Catherine Martin; pianist and broadcaster David Owen Norris and classical wind specialists Boxwood & Brass.

On Sunday evening, the Songlines Encounters Festival presented Kayhan Kalhor and fellow Iranian, musician and composer Kiya Tabassian, Kalhor’s student of many years, in an evening of exquisite improvisations. Kalhor is a virtuoso of the Persian spiked fiddle, the kamancheh, but here he performed on the setar, a four-stringed lute with 25 movable frets, often associated with Sufism.

“Our spring season is jam-packed with musical delights, welcoming in a new year with more than a little hope that 2022 will be happier and healthier for us all,” says NCEM director Delma Tomlin.

“Guest artists will include some of the finest folk, jazz, global and early music specialists on the circuit today, with highlights including the welcome return of sax virtuoso Snake Davis, the ever-entertaining Moishe’s Bagel and folk legends Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham, whose concert is finally on after repeated postponements in lockdown.

NCEM director Delma Tomlin: “Welcoming in a new year with more than a little hope that 2022 will be happier and healthier for us all”

“As ever, we offer a warm welcome to artists from across the world and are particularly delighted to welcome the vibrant strings of VOŁOSI; qanun specialist Maya Youssef, from Syria, and the sparklingly young vocal ensemble Cantoria from Spain. All are guaranteed to bring warmth, entertainment and joy to our audiences.”

Coming next, on March 9, will be the return of Edinburgh’s Moishe’s Bagel with their cutting-edge klezmer and folk music, combining life-affirming Eastern European dance music, Middle Eastern rhythms and virtuoso improvised performances. Expect new pieces alongside favourites.

On March 11, Scottish folk duo Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham combine humorous banter with heartstring-tugging tunes, joyous reels and melodies aplenty in a partnership that has runs to 30 years now.

Booked for March 17, powerhouse English folk trio Faustus have spent much of the past two years researching and writing new material from the poetry of the 1860s’ Lancashire Cotton Famine, resulting in moving new songs, as heard on the Cotton Lords EP. 

Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham: Playing together for three decades

In the line-up will be Benji Kirkpatrick, from the Seth Lakeman Band, Steeleye Span and Bellowhead; Saul Rose, from Waterson:Carthy, Eliza Carthy’s Wayward Band and Whapweazel, and Paul Sartin, from Bellowhead and Belshazzar’s Feast.

Cantoría celebrate the 2022 Early Music Day with El Jubilate, a March 18 programme drawn from the Spanish songbooks of the Renaissance, brimful of desire, passion and sin, but fiery devotion, love, joy and solitude too.

At 7pm, Cantoria – featuring soprano Inés Alonso, countertenor Oriol Guimera, tenor Jorge Losana and bass Valentin Miralles – explore a world of demons, saints and people that lived with the same complicated emotions that we face today.

This Spanish ensemble gave a performance at the Beverley and East Riding Early Music Festival four years and have participated in the EEEMerging+ programme for two years. They will be in residence at the NCEM in March, leading up to the concert.

Trish Clowes with her My Iris band members: Seeing eye to eye in York on May 3. Picture: Brian Homer

Innovative folk accordionist, vocalist and clog dancer Hannah James, a key figure in the revival of English percussive dance, unites with globetrotting, post-classical, improvisational French cellist Toby Kuhn for Sleeping Spirals, an April 8 concert full of playful chemistry, warmth and soul, as they resume their new project started last autumn.

On April 20, led by British composer and violinist Christian Garrick, Budapest Café Orchestra perform a blistering barrage of traditional folk and gypsy- flavoured music that takes in the Balkans and Russia, Klezmer laments, Romanian doinas, Hungarian czadas and their own re-imaginings of big tunes by classical greats.

Flook, in the NCEM diary for April 27, take inspiration from Irish and English sources, weaving and spinning traditionally rooted tunes over precise acoustic grooves with a bold, adventurous musical imagination, as whistle player Brian Finnegan, flautist Sarah Allen, guitarist Ed Boyd and bodhran player Joihn Joe Kelly have been doing for more than 25 years.

Saxophonist-to-the-stars Snake Davis is welcomed back to the NCEM on April 28, this time in a new venture with arranger, composer and pianist Robin A Smith, musical director for the London Olympics opening ceremony in 2012.

Snake Davis and Robin A Smith: New venture at the NCEM on April 28

Sparring partners for decades, spearheading the Classic Chillout movement 20 years ago, they now team up to celebrate the joy and power of classical, folk, pop and jazz music.

Another saxophonist, Trish Clowes, leads her jazz band My Iris in their York debut on May 3, providing pianist Ross Stanley, guitarist Chris Montague and drummer James Maddren with a high-intensity platform for individual expression and improvisation, delivering driving grooves and lingering melodic lines, as they “seamlessly morph between earthy restlessness and futuristic dreamscapes”.

The Yorkshire Silent Film Festival returns to the NCEM on May 10 to present the 1929 Indian box-office smash A Throw Of The Dice (PG), accompanied by an improvised live score by Utsav Lal, a young Indian pianist noted for his innovative piano renditions of Hindustani ragas.

Based on an episode from The Mahabarata, this lavishly romantic silent film tells the story of rival Indian kings – one good, one bad – who fall in love with the same woman. Filmed in India with 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses, 50 elephants and an all-star Indian cast, it rivals Cecil B De Mille for screen spectacle.

VOŁOSI : Seeking to “exceed the limits of string instruments” on May 23

After 700 concerts in 34 countries, the string-driven VOŁOSI make their NCEM debut on May 23, led by violinist Krzysztof Lasoń and cellist Stanisław Lasoń, who first joined forces with traditional performers deep in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains in 2010. From those roots, the Polish band seek to “exceed the limits of string instruments” with their modern, powerful and emotional playing.

On June 9, Maya Youssef, queen of the qanun, the 78-stringed Middle Eastern plucked zither, showcases Finding Home, an album that takes a journey through memories and the essence of home, both within and without, as she explores the emotional and healing qualities of music.

“It’s about finding that place of peace, that place of softness, comfort and healing, which manifests in everyone in a unique way, from finding home in nature to the people who make us feel that sense of relief and peace,” says Maya, who will be joined by the musicians from the recording sessions that were rooted in the Arabic classical tradition but forged pathways into jazz, Western classical and flamenco styles too.

For Maya, who was born in Damascus, Syria, and has lived in the UK since 2012, the act of playing music is a both a life and hope-affirming act and an antidote to what is happening, not only in Syria, but across the world.

This will be the first of three concerts to be staged at the NCEM under the umbrella of the York Festival of Ideas. In the second, on June 12, guitarist, composer and ukulele virtuoso Richard Durrant at last cycles into York on his Covid-delayed Music For Midsummer musical pilgrimage from Orkney to Brighton Open Air Theatre for the summer solstice.

Maya Youssef: Finding Home at the NCEM on June 9

Expect plenty of tales from the road, as well as original guitar music, British-flavoured folk and Bach on the uke as he celebrates the release of his Rewilding album.

For the third concert, double bassist and composer Alison Rayner leads her vibrant, award-winning quintet through “songs without words” on June 17 in the company of Buster Birch, drums, Deirdre Cartwright, guitar, Diane McLoughlin, saxophones, and Steve Lodder, piano.  

Their music-making combines richly nuanced compositions, rhythmic interplay and folk-infused melodies with a cinematic quality, a love of improvisation and a strong sense of narrative.

Already booked for the autumn are She’koyokh, an international seven-piece klezmer and Balkan band from London, on October 30 (6.30pm) and Scottish fiddler, composer John McCusker, celebrating his 30th anniversary as a professional musician, on November 2.

Performances start at 7.30pm unless stated otherwise. Box office: 01904 658338 or at ncem.co.uk.

Opera North commissions sound journeys for lockdown from Walking Home quintet

South African cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe: Responding to beneficial effects of walking. Picture: Mlungisi Mlungwana

OPERA North is creating Walking Home: Sound Journeys For Lockdown in response to the easing of Covid-19 regulations on exercise and time spent outdoors.

For this commission for BBC Arts and Arts Council England’s Culture in Quarantine programme, the Leeds company has asked five artists to write and record new works specifically to be heard while walking.

Crossing folk, jazz, Middle Eastern and African traditions, classical and contemporary music, with a propensity for experimentation and breaking the confines of genre, the contributors are South African cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe; Syrian-born qanun virtuoso Maya Youssef; Syrian-born Iraqi oud player and composer Khyam Allami; Anglo-Polish vocalist, violinist and songwriter Alice Zawadski and English accordionist and electronic experimentalist Martin Green, from the cutting-edge folk trio Lau.

Martin Green: Has a dawn or early morning walk in mind for his piece. Picture: Genevieve Stevenson

Building on Opera North’s history of innovative sound walks and installations, the five musicians are writing and recording their pieces in home studios across Britain and Europe. Once complete, Walking Home will be available through broadcast slots across BBC radio and television, through podcasts on BBC Sounds, and via the BBC Arts website, continuing the Culture in Quarantine mission to bring the arts to homes despite arts venue closures, social distancing and UK-wide lockdowns.

One of 25 new commissions for Culture in Quarantine,Walking Home is billed as a “vibrant cross-section of music-making in Britain today, made by musicians under lockdown for audiences in the same predicament”.

The series seeks to engage with the lockdown context for walking and solitary activity, each 15-minute piece “offering an opportunity to renew our imaginative connections with our environment”.

Maya Youssef: Intense and thoughtful music on the qanun

Jo Nockels, Opera North’s head of projects, says: “The spark for the Walking Home commissions came from the strange alchemy we found between walker, place and music that was powerfully evident in the past sound journey commissions we have made for the Humber Bridge and River Tyne.

“While these five new walking commissions are on a much more intimate scale, and meant for wherever you are, all five respond to the dynamic of walking, listening through headphones and taking in your surroundings to produce an experience as much created by the listener as by the artists. 

“They might offer a soundtrack to a daily escape from lockdown; intensify the sensations experienced on their chosen route; or conjure up something altogether harder to define.”

Iraqi oud player and composer Khyam Allami: Taking cinematic approach to disconcerting atmosphere of urban areas under lockdown

Nockels adds: “We are delighted to be working with five such brilliant and varied composer/musicians on this project, each of whom innovates way beyond the boundaries of genre. Together they will form a collection of music that is refreshing, unexpected and individual.”

Best known as one third of the visionary folk trio Lau, Martin Green’s reputation as a composer in his own right was cemented by an Ivor Award for his Opera North commission for the Great Exhibition of the North in 2018.

Evolving over the course of a half-hour walk along the banks of the River Tyne, Aeons was an epic sound work that featured the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North and Becky Unthank of The Unthanks. His contribution to the Walking Home series has a dawn or early morning walk in mind.

Alice Zawadski: Classical violin, gospel, jazz and folk. Picture: Monika S Jakubowska

Syrian-born Iraqi oud player Khyam Allami’s haunting installation Requiem For The 21st Century was an Opera North commission for the 2019 PRS New Music Biennale, combining microtonal tuning, ancient Arabic musical modes and generative software to produce ever-changing melodic sequences from speakers fitted within an array of decaying ouds.

Allami will be writing and recording his sound walk from his base in Berlin, taking a cinematic approach to the disconcerting atmosphere of urban areas under lockdown.

Now based in Manchester, cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe moves seamlessly from collaborations with world musicians and beatboxers to concerto performances and solo classical recitals.

He spent an Opera North Resonance residency working on a new body of solo music for the cello influenced by traditional African instruments. His sound journey will acknowledge the beneficial effects that he has felt from walking over the past weeks.

Walking Home: Five artists are writing and recording new works specifically to be heard while walking

Born and raised in Damascus, Maya Youssef plays the qanun, the Arabic form of the zither with a history dating back to the 19th century BC. She has made her home in the UK after recognition from the Government’s Exceptional Talent programme for her intense and thoughtful music, rooted in the Arabic classical tradition but taking inspiration from Western classical music and jazz. 

Drawing on classical violin, gospel, jazz and folk, Alice Zawadzki’s output as soloist and collaborator is prodigious and eclectic. Her second solo album, last year’s Within You Is A World Of Spring, showcased her mastery of a range of styles in an inspired collection of songs.

Opera North is “still in discussion with the BBC about a release date, but hopefully it will be within the next month or so”.