Academy of St Olave’s to perform Richard Strauss, Mozart, Beethoven and Charles Ives works in season finale summer concert

Oboe soloist: Alexandra Nightingale

THE Academy of St Olave’s round off their 2021-22 season with a Summer Concert on June 25 in aid York Against Cancer.

The York chamber orchestra’s 8pm programme at St Olave’s Church, Marygate, begins with Beethoven’s tempestuous Coriolan Overture, followed by The Unanswered Question by American composer Charles Ives, who splits the orchestra into three instrumental groups to consider “the perennial question of existence” posed by a solo trumpet.

The Academy’s principal oboist, Alexandra Nightingale, then performs Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto two years later than originally planned! Considered by many to be the 20th century’s finest oboe concerto, Strauss composed the work in 1945 during his “Indian Summer”, at the suggestion of an oboe-playing American soldier serving in Bavaria at the end of the Second World War. The finale will be Mozart’s much-loved Symphony No. 39 in E flat.

Soloist Alexandra Nightingale grew up in Oxfordshire and studied Classics at Pembroke College, Cambridge, before moving to Yorkshire to teach Classics in 1993. Past solo engagements have included the Vaughan Williams Concerto with the Pembroke College Orchestra and the Mozart Oboe Concerto in F with the Academy of St Olave’s in 2011.

The Academy of St Olave’s poster for the June 25 concert

Alexandra, who also plays oboe for the York Guildhall Orchestra, volunteers as a fireman on the narrow-gauge Bala Lake Railway in North Wales in her spare time.

The Academy’s guest conductor, John Bryan, says: “I am delighted to have the chance to work again with this fine orchestra – and an outstanding soloist – on such a varied programme. Audience members are sure to enjoy two lesser-known masterpieces by Ives and Strauss, alongside old favourites such as the Beethoven overture and Mozart symphony.”

The concert will benefit York Against Cancer, the independent charity that offers practical help and support to patients and their families living with cancer in York, North Yorkshire and East Yorkshire. The charity also funds vital research and education to prevent and cure cancer in the future.

Ticket cost £15 or £5 for accompanied children aged 18 and under at academyofstolaves.org.uk; booking in advance is recommended strongly. Any remaining tickets will be sold on the door from 7.15pm.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Perpetuo Trio, British Music Society, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, York, February 18

Perpetuo Trio pianist Libby Burgess

THE piano trio called Perpetuo brought Mozart and Mendelssohn to the British Music Society of York’s table, framing a piece by Cheryl Frances-Hoad written in 2005.

The Mozart was run-of-the-mill, the Mendelssohn invigorating, but Frances-Hoad’s ten-minute offering contained much more than its brief length might imply.

My Fleeting Angel was inspired by a Sylvia Plath short story, The Wishing Box, which deals with a married couple’s contrasting dreams. I confess that the story it purported to tell – music cannot describe, only evoke – passed me by, but made no difference to its pleasing effect.

It opened with string harmonics, which did not bode well, but the whirling piano soon shook the others into rhythmic life and all three continued in tight harness. The excitement eventually slowed right down, although the sense of a tonal centre continued.

The concluding Allegretto eleganza delivered an extended wind-up to an abrupt ending. It was a tantalising conclusion, begging the question “What next?”, but none the worse for that.

Cellist Cara Berridge

Mendelssohn’s First Piano Trio, Op 49 in D minor, written in 1839, was acclaimed by Schumann, no less, as “the master trio of our age”. It got off to an expressive start, although Cara Berridge might have made a little more of the cello’s sweeping theme. But all was forgiven in a recapitulation of immense excitement.

Apart from the passionate conversation at its centre, the song-like slow movement made a gentle contrast, with Libby Burgess’s piano setting the tone. It ended in a heavenly hush.

After a neat and light scherzo, which disappeared into the heavens – another trademark Mendelssohn touch – the violin of Jamie Campbell really came into its own in the spirited finale. With the piano cascading up and down, there was still time for a moment to draw in the listener when the strings resorted to pizzicato against the keyboard’s staccato. Best of all, balance remained excellent despite all the exuberance.

Mozart’s G major trio, K.496 of 1786 had not provided the best of starts. The opening Allegro was clear but uninvolving, with more than a touch of caution, and the slow movement was more languid than liquid. There was a certain amount of drama in the final set of variations. But Frances-Hoad livened things up and Mendelssohn did the rest.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on York Opera in Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Heather Watts as Queen of Night in York Opera’s The Magic Flute: “Fiery coloratura spiced with menacing gesture”. Picture: Benjamin Lindley

The Magic Flute, York Opera, at York Theatre Royal, tonight and Friday, 7.15pm; Saturday, 4pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

AFTER 20 frustrating months, York Opera is back where it belongs – on the Theatre Royal stage. We may all rejoice.

Running an opera company is backbreaking work at the best of times. Covid has been making it a whole heap harder. Mozart’s last opera would not necessarily be an automatic choice after so long a lay-off and is certainly not an easy option. But the company has dug deep and delivers the goods in a splendid revival of John Soper’s traditional production, first seen in 2009.

In the distribution of laurels, there are many individuals to compliment. But one entity stands out. Derek Chivers’s 20-piece band, using an excellent orchestral reduction by Kenneth Roberts, takes the score by storm.

Hamish Brown’s Prince Tamino and Alexandra Mather’s Pamina. Picture: Benjamin Lindley

On opening night they began untidily, to be sure, but halfway through the overture there was no stopping them, inspired by a woodwind quartet of the highest calibre whose colourings and accuracy are a marvel throughout. Claire Jowett, a stalwart of so many groups, offers untiring leadership of the strings. One member, James Sanderson, slips in and out of the pit as player of the magic bells when not singing First Priest, a unique double act.

The singers clearly relish such a strong foundation. Foremost among them is Heather Watts, who returns to deliver another impeccable Queen of Night, fiery coloratura spiced with menacing gesture, a thrilling performance by any standards. David Valsamidis makes a witty, amiable Papageno, whose superb diction is allied to a warm baritone. Unlike some, he never forgets his audience.

Alexandra Mather is a fetching Pamina, whose emotions are conveyed not only by her clear soprano but also by complementary facial expressions, a valuable asset. Her Tamino is Hamish Brown, who takes the role that illness denied him last time round. His tendency to jerky movement undermines his princeliness, but his accurate if pinched tenor covers the ground well.

Monostatos might suit his personality better. That role goes to Ian Thomson-Smith, last time’s Papageno. He sings it musically but without quite the venom this nasty character demands. The Sarastro of Mark Simmonds is clad much like an orthodox priest; his bass is a little underpowered at the bottom of the range, but otherwise firm and decisive.

David Valsamidis: “Makes a witty, amiable Papageno” in his York Opera debut. Picture: Benjamin Lindley

Lesser roles are covered with distinction, reaffirming the company’s strength in depth. Clive Goodhead is an authoritative Speaker, doubling as an Armed Man (here described as Guardian of Fire), while Elizabeth Vile is a vivid Papagena.

I was much taken by the three Genies, Victoria Beale, Hannah Just and Maggie Smales – standing in for the usual ‘Boys’ – blending superbly like their rich white brocades, breeches and tricorns. Equally impressive are the spear-carrying Three Ladies, Annabel van Griethuysen, Rebecca Smith and Maggie Soper, a determined trio.

The chorus seems to have acquired some new blood and sounds fresh and committed. They are also very disciplined, moving with intent but keeping still when merely onlookers, which is easier said than done. I had forgotten how rich Maggie Soper’s costumes are, distinctive and a feast for the eye. A word, too, for Eric Lund’s nicely varied lighting.

John Soper’s own masonic-style permanent set fits the bill well: two panels of stars and planets divided by gold triangles and circle, with a chessboard platform in front. If it were a little closer to front-stage, some of the solo voices would resonate better than they do from further back. His production is now even more slick than before and more clearly organised; he merely needs to get some of the spoken dialogue better projected. But this is a cheering evening in so many ways and deserves widespread support.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Maggie Soper’s costumes in York Opera’s The Magic Flute: “Distinctive and a feast for the eye”. Picture: Benjamin Lindley

York Opera to return to York Theatre Royal after two-year hiatus with The Magic Flute

Alexandra Mather’s Pamina, Mark Simmonds’s High Priest Sarastro and Hamish Brown’s Prince Tamino in York Opera’s The Magic Flute. Picture: John Saunders

YORK Opera will return to York Theatre Royal after a pandemic-enforced two-year gap with Mozart’s The Magic Flute next week.

Sung in English to orchestral accompaniment, Mozart’s last great operatic masterpiece will be performed on November 2, 3 and 5 at 7.15pm and on November 6 at 4pm.

The story follows Prince Tamino and his quest to rescue his beloved Pamina from the grasp of her mother, the evil Queen of the Night, and return with her to the world of light presided over by Sarastro, the High Priest of Isis and Osiris.

Premiered in 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, The Magic Flute has a deep and serious theme: the ultimate triumph of light and enlightenment over the powers of darkness and superstition. Yet the story of a Prince finding his true love in a world of dragons, magic bells and magic flute serves as an operatic pantomime too, making it the perfect introduction to opera.

David Valsamidis: Making his York Opera debut as bird catcher Papageno

York Opera’s stage director for The Magic Flute is John Soper, a long-serving member, baritone soloist and publicity designer, who has designed the sets too. Musical direction is in the hands of Derek Chivers, whose last appearance with the company was as musical director and conductor for Carmen in 2018.

Among the many soloists will be Mark Simmonds as High Priest Sarastro, Heather Watts as Queen of the Night, Hamish Brown as Prince Tamino and Alexandra Mather as Pamina, while bass David Valsamidis makes his York Opera debut as Papageno, the Queen of the Night’s bird catcher.

To complement these five major roles, a dozen more named solo parts ensure York Opera’s wide-ranging vocal talent will be on display.

Tickets are on sale on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Heather Watts, as the Queen of the Night, left, and Alexandra Mather, as Pamina, in York Opera’s The Magic Flute. Picture: John Saunders

Meanwhile, a note from York Opera…

OPERA is possibly the most demanding of all the arts, especially for any young singers dreaming of becoming established performers.

Those setting out on such a road need reliable opportunities to learn and develop their craft both as singers and actors. Where are they to receive the support that they need?

Look at how York Opera responds to this need. This amateur opera group prides itself on its high standards and its determination to employ York and district orchestral musicians to accompany the productions of grand opera and other works, staged twice a year for more than 50 years.

Latterly too, York Opera has welcomed an influx of younger singers, who have complemented and extended the range of expertise within the group.

Alexandra Mather: York opera singer attended the Glyndebourne Academy in 2019. Picture: James Belloris

In addition, plans were in place to try out a handful of new stage directors and musical directors, moving on from their roles as assistants or repetiteurs. They were to have the support of an overall production manager, Clive Marshall, one of York Opera’s most experienced producers, and would have taken charge of four fully staged operatic excerpts to be performed at York’s National Centre for Early Music.

Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic brought everything to an abrupt halt. Now, nearly two years later, York Opera is almost back on track.

All these developments came under the umbrella of York Opera’s Stepping Stones project, one that received a boost from Australian soprano Danielle de Niese, whose home at Glyndebourne, in Sussex, has its own springboard: the Glyndebourne Academy.

This operatic development project aims to support gifted and talented young singers, and so far, two York Opera members, Andrew Powis and Alexandra Mather, have taken part, with hopes that others will do so in future.

Soprano Danielle de Niese: Letter of support to York Opera

Learning of this involvement, Danielle de Niese has provided a letter of support. “I was approached by the president of York Opera, Clive Goodhead, after a performance of Massenet’s Cendrillon at Glyndebourne Opera House. He explained that York Opera has a proud and firm reputation as a long-standing, highly successful amateur group up in Yorkshire.

“One of York Opera’s charitable aims is to provide opportunities for young singers, especially those who might entertain the idea of becoming future professionals. In this respect, its aims have much in common with those of Glyndebourne’s Academy programme.

“The latter is widely recognised as an amazing opportunity for young singers. Always massively oversubscribed, it represents a real achievement and outstanding opportunity for anyone who passes its auditions.

“York Opera, I am told, is delighted to have seen two of its younger members, Andrew Powis and Alexandra Mather, joining the project in recent times. I am most happy to offer both of these singers my best wishes for their operatic futures.

York Opera singer Andrew Powis, who has studied at the Glyndebourne Academy

“I am also more than pleased to offer my sincere appreciation to York Opera. It has my whole-hearted support as a vital early stepping stone for younger opera singers aspiring to be professionals one day.”

Alexandra Mather will be playing Pamina in The Magic Flute and around a dozen other principals and chorus members in next week’s production at York Theatre Royal are younger singers.

“Opportunities of this sort are vital if the United Kingdom is to provide reliable home-grown experiences as stepping stones for the next generation of professional opera performers,” says Clive Goodhead.

“Amateur groups of the quality and stability of York Opera deserve greater recognition and support themselves. The group is a registered charity (No. 700279), one of our aims being to educate in the art of opera. We are self-supporting, actively welcoming of new members and always seeking sponsorship.”

More information can be found at yorkopera.co.uk.