REVIEW: Songs Under Skies, Kitty VR and Boss Caine, NCEM, York, 9/9/2021

Kitty VR: Playing her first gig for seven months at the NCEM churchyard. Picture: Neil Chapman/Unholy Racket

REVIEW: Songs Under Skies, Kitty VR and Boss Caine, National Centre for Early Music churchyard, St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York

THE inaugural Songs Under Skies season of open-air acoustic concerts in the NCEM churchyard resumes with Polly Bolton and Henry Parker tomorrow, concluding with Elkyn and Fawn on Thursday (both nights sold out).

Alas the skies were so sodden for the opening night that Amy May Ellis and Luke Saxton had to scurry indoors for their show, but the great British weather was on best behaviour for double bill number three, Kitty VR and Boss Caine last Wednesday, co-hosted by the NCEM, The Crescent and the Fulford Arms under the campaigning umbrella of the Music Venues Alliance.

At least a couple of sets of gravestones were not obeying social distancing, but this was a Covid-secure event in every way, from the requirement to sanitise hands on arrival to the one-way system in operation for entering and leaving the NCEM church building (wearing masks when inside too).

Audience members were seated in pods – or perhaps “God pods”, because we were in a churchyard – as a full garden gathered, full of the joy of being able to watch Kitty VR live, rather than in VR in that virtual reality hinterland of Zoom that has substituted stoically in lockdown and beyond.

Gravestones at the NCEM: Standing out from the social-distancing measures at the Songs Under Skies concerts

Kitty nearly came a cropper before the start, falling in an unseen hole as she carried her box of CDs, but thankfully not disappearing like Alice into Wonderland.

Once on stage, Kitty cut a composed, quietly spoken, contemplative figure in familiar  singer-songwriter mode, a la Laura Marling, so much so that her spectral electric guitar would never have said Boo to any passing acoustic music wardens or below-ground churchyard inhabitants for that matter.

In her first concert since lockdown, Kitty introduced new song Wisteria, rhyming that butterfly of short-lived flowers with hysteria, rather than listeria in these pandemic times, unless the Hutch hearing was failing, and revealed a predilection for single-word titles – Dimensions, Whirlpool, Slumber – and single-speed compositions in life’s slow lane.

Closing with an acoustic rendition of Release on a stool, her sunsetting set was the balm before the country, blues and even rockabilly storm of Boss Caine, aka Daniel Lucas, the stalwart sentinel of the York gig scene for so long in his rapscallion role as the city’s grizzled answer to Tom Waits.

Boss Caine and stand-up bassist Paddy Berry playing Songs Under Skies after rehearsing remotely. Picture: Neil Chapman/Unholy Racket

He has been creative in lockdown, writing sleepless nocturnal songs for Bandcamp  premieres and EPs and now airing them live, as darkness descended and lighting picked out the churchyard trees’ frameworks as subtly as watercolours.

“We’re going to be brave and play a completely new set,” said Lucas, who had rehearsed remotely with stand-up bass player Paddy Berry and would now be playing together for the first time. All the more reason to love to this troubadour tornado.

“If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die high,” he sang defiantly…“I could use a little chemical sedation”… “I’ll even put your secret into one of my songs”… “Take me out like a Kennedy”…the memorable lyrics kept a’coming.

“No-one will be offended if I use a Conference League swear word, will they?”, he said, more as a statement, rather than seeking permission. Lucas has always been a master of the banter too.

Kitty VR closes her set by playing an acoustic version of Release, taking to the stool after her guitar strap broke the day before. Picture: Neil Chapman/Unholy Racket

“You keep going for the song,” he reasoned for not caving in to the stultifying impact of Covid-19, before a self-deprecating finale flourish. “This is a song about people having complaints after Boss Caine gigs,” he announced.

Too much that, not enough this, they say. Wrong, wrong, wrong, on all counts. Instead, in his concluding words, Boss Caine will always “Burn on bright, burn on bright again”: York’s torch-bearer for why live music at its best will always be a thrill, a rush, like no other.

Kitty VR, by the way, has contributed a haunted solo rendition of Colour Me In, Phil Grainger and lyricist Alexander Flanagan Wright’s finest composition, to The Mythstape, the North Yorkshire duo’s gradually emerging mixtape of recordings by their favourite artists of songs from their two-hander shows Orpheus, Eurydice and Gods Gods Gods.

The Howl And The Hum’s Sam Griffiths has applied his golden brush to Tumble Down, from Eurydice, now floating high on angel’s wings. Watch this space for news of more Myth making…

…Oh, and Phil, could you please deliver on your sort-of promise to record your own versions too. Make that particular myth come true!

Phil Grainger, left, and Alexander Flanagan Wright: Inviting Kitty PR, Sam Griffiths and fellow favourite singers to record their songs from Orpheus, Eurydice and Gods Gods Gods for The Mythstape. Picture: Charlotte Graham

More Things To Do in and around York and at home, as opposed to a “social gathering” for the joy of six. List No 14, from The Press

Helen Wilson in a damned spot of Scottish bother in York Shakespeare Project’s Sit-down Sonnets at Holy Trinity churchyard, Goodramgate, York. Picture: John Saunders

MUSICAL theatre in a park, drag cabaret at a sports club, Shakespeare sonnets and songs in churchyards, high-speed film action at an airfield and chamber music online catch Charles Hutchinson’s eye

Graveyard smash of the week: York Shakespeare Project’s Sit-down Sonnets, Holy Trinity churchyard, Goodramgate, York, until Saturday

WHEN York Shakespeare Project’s Macbeth bit the dust in March, put on hold by the Covid lockdown, York’s purveyors of Shakespeare’s Sonnet Walks decided to stage a sit-down, but not as an act of protest.

Director Mick Taylor and producer Maurice Crichton hatched a plan to present assorted familiar Shakespeare characters, brought into the modern world, to reflect on the pandemic with an accompanying sonnet.

Holy Trinity’s churchyard, with its five park benches, tree shelter and mown grass, provides an ideal socially distanced open-air setting. Bring a rug, cushion, camp chair, flask and biscuits, suggests Maurice, to performances at 5.45pm and 7pm, plus 4.15pm on Saturday.

Polly Bolton: Sharing a double bill with Henry Parker in the NCEM churchyard

Double bills in another churchyard: Songs Under Skies, National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York, tonight, September 16 and 17

SONGS Under Skies brings together the National Centre for Early Music, The Crescent, The Fulford Arms and the Music Venues Alliance for an open-air series of acoustic concerts.

The opening night with Amy May Ellis and Luke Saxton on September 2 was driven inside by the rain. Fingers crossed for more clement conditions for Wolf Solent and Rosalind tonight, Polly Bolton and Henry Parker on September 16 and Elkyn and Fawn the following night.

Gates will open at 6.30pm for each 7pm start; acts will perform either side of a 30-minute interval with a finishing time of 8.30pm. 

The Bev Jones Music Company in a socially distanced rehearsal for Sunday’s show at the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre

Musical theatre showcase part one: Bev Jones Music Company, Strictly Live In The Park, Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, York, Sunday, 3pm.

THE Bev Jones Music Company stage a full-sized musical theatre concert with more than 20 socially distanced singers and a five-piece band on Sunday afternoon.

Strictly Live In The Park promises a “spectacular show for all the family, with popular show music, pop music, dance and comedy”, under the musical direction of John Atkin with choreography by Claire Pulpher.

Expect numbers from Adele to Robbie Williams, Cabaret to Hairspray, Mack & Mabel to South Pacific, The Full Monty to Chess, Miss Saigon to the finale, Les Miserables, all arranged by the late company driving force Bev Jones. Also expect temperature tests on arrival.

Conor Mellor in York Stage Musicals’ first show at the Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, York. He will be back for the second one too. Picture: Jess Main

Musical theatre showcase part two: York Stage Musicals present Jukebox Divas, Rowntree Park Amphitheatre, York, September 18 to 20, 7pm

AFTER the sold-out three-night run of York Stage Musicals’ first ever outdoor show last month, producer/director Nik Briggs and musical director Jessica Douglas return to their Rowntree Park psychedelic igloo to stage Jukebox Divas.

Jessica’s band line-up has changed, so too has the singing sextet, with Conor Mellor from the debut show being joined by Dan Conway, Sophie Hammond, Grace Lancaster and Eleanor Leaper.

“With music from We Will Rock You, Mamma Mia! and more modern releases like + Juliet and Moulin Rouge, audiences will be entertained for 90 minutes with vocal tributes to artists such as Elvis Presley, Queen, Meat Loaf, Katy Perry, Carole King and many more,” says Nik.

Baby Driver: one of the films with high-speed thrills to be screened at AA Getaway Drive-in Cinema at Elvington Airfield

Car experience of next week: AA Getaway Drive-in Cinema, Elvington Airfield, near York, September 18 to 20

AFTER Daisy Duke’s Drive-in Cinema on Knavesmire, now comes a celebration of high-speed thrills and derring-do skills at Elvington Airfield…on screen, courtesy of AA Getaway Drive-in Cinema.

Tickets have sold out already for the September 19 screenings of James Gunn’s 2014 space chase, Guardians Of The Galaxy (12A), at 2.30pm and James Mangold’s 2019 Ford v Ferrari race-track clash, Le Mans 66 (12), at 7.30pm.

Bookings can still be made, however, for Guardians Of The Galaxy on September 18 at 2.30pm and September 20 at 7.30pm and Edgar Wright’s 2017 getaway-car heist thriller, Baby Driver (15), September 18, 7.30pm, and September 20, 2.30pm.

No more kitchen-sink dramas for Velma Celli as York’s drag diva deluxe swaps live-streaming for the great outdoors in Acomb tomorrow

Stepping out of her Bishopthorpe kitchen into the York open air: Velma Celli: An Evening Of Song, York RI Community Sports Club, New Lane, Acomb, tomorrow, 8pm.

AFTER a spring and summer of concerts live-streamed from home, York drag diva Velma Celli takes to the outdoor stage at a sports club.

“The show will be a mixed bag of whatever I fancy on the day – pop, rock, impressions and some musical theatre obviously – and of course requests online. Message me on Facebook,” advises Velma.

Very special guests are promised: definitely York soul powerhouse Jessica Steel will be among them.

Tim Lowe: York Chamber Music Festival artistic director and cellist

Festival of the month: York Chamber Music Festival, September 18 to 20

THE 2020 York Chamber Music Festival is going online to live-stream three concerts from the National Centre for Early Music, Walmgate, York, in a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.

Festival artistic director and cellist Lowe will be performing with Simon Blendis and Charlotte Scott, violins; Matthew Jones, violin and viola; Jon Thorne, viola, and Katya Apekisheva, piano. For full details on the programme and on how to watch the concerts, go to ycmf.co.uk.

Strictly between us: Anton du Beke and Giovanni Pernice’s tour poster for Him & Me next summer at the Grand Opera House, York

One for the 2021 diary: Anton & Giovanni, Him & Me, Grand Opera House, York, July 12

STRICTLY Come Dancing staples Anton du Beke and Giovanni Pernice will link up for their debut tour together, Him & Me, next year.

Details are sketchy, but the dapper Sevenoaks ballroom king and the Italian stallion say: “This show promises to be the best night out in the Summer of 2021 for all ages…A true dance extravaganza!”

Anton and Giovanni will be joined by a “world-class cast” of dancers and singers for a show produced by Strictly Theatre Co and directed by Alan Burkitt.

And what about…?

A visit to the reopened Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre exhibition in Blossom Street, York. Malton Harvest Food Festival on Saturday. New Light Prize Exhibition, with more than 100 artists, opening at Scarborough Art Gallery on September 19. York Walking Festival, running or, rather, walking until Sunday (details at iTravel York website).

Jon, by Laura Quin Harris, at the New Light Prize Exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery

When is a sold-out show not sold out? When extra tickets are released for Hansel And Gretel at NCEM…but hurry, hurry

In a rush like Jennifer Clark’s Gretel in Opera North’s Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel? You should be if you want tickets for tomorrow’s shows at the NCEM, York. Picture: Tom Arber

NEWSFLASH! More tickets are being released for Opera North’s three sold-out performances of Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel in the National Centre for Early Music garden, in Walmgate, York.

Tickets are suddenly available for tomorrow’s three performances at 11.30am, 1pm and 3pm. The urgent advice is: “Get in quickly. Only a few pods remain. Buy online from ncem.co.uk.”

Songs Under Skies garden gigs open at NCEM tonight. All but one has sold out. UPDATED

Polly Bolton: Tickets are still available for her Songs Under Skies concert on September 16

SONGS Under Skies kicks off tonight under foreboding skies at the National Centre for Early Music, York, with a double bill of Amy May Ellis and Luke Saxton.

All but one of the open-air acoustic concerts in the churchyard gardens of the NCEM’s home at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, has sold out as live music with an audience returns to the NCEM for the first time since the March lockdown.

Tickets are still available for Polly Bolton and Henry Parker on September 16, but hurry as the capacity is only 50.

You can buy tickets for family groups or as individuals. Seating each night will be in pods and full details can be found at tickets.ncem.co.uk/.

Songs Under Skies bring together the National Centre for Early Music, The Crescent, The Fulford Arms and the Music Venues Alliance for the September series.

Bella Gaffney expresses her delight at the chance to play a concert again

Taking part are Amy May Ellis and Luke Saxton tonight (September 2); Dan Webster and Bella Gaffney, tomorrow; Kitty VR and Boss Caine, September 9, Wolf Solent and Rosalind, September 10; Polly Bolton and Henry Parker, September 16, and Elkyn and Fawn, September 17.

Concerts for last month’s online York Early Music Festival had to be recorded and filmed behind closed doors at the NCEM, with no audiences, for digital streaming from July 9 to 11.

For Songs Under Skies, gates will open at 6.30pm for each 7pm start; acts will perform either side of a 30-minute interval with a finishing time of 8.30pm. Social distancing will be strictly observed and masks must be worn inside the NCEM but will not be required in the garden.

NCEM director Delma Tomlin says: “We’re thrilled to be able to welcome artists and audiences back to our home at St Margaret’s Church, thanks to the invaluable help of our York partners, and I’d like to say a huge thank-you to them.

“We hope that this marks the beginning of a gradual and safe return to being able to bring you much more music over the months to come.

Sold out: Boss Caine’s double bill with Kitty PR on September 9

Like all arts organisations, the last few months have been difficult, but we’re lucky to have received overwhelming support from our loyal audiences and from our funders, to whom I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks. We hope you’ll be able to join us for these wonderful Songs Under [the] Skies of our beautiful city.”

Chris Sherrington, who runs The Fulford Arms and is the North East regional coordinator for the Music Venues Alliance, says: “Both The Crescent community venue and The Fulford Arms are excited to be working with our York Music Venue Network partners, the NCEM, to help fill some of the cultural vacuum that has sadly been affecting York since March.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to bring our expertise together and programme a beautiful series of shows in a safe and stunning space with a range of amazing talent. We hope this will be the first of many such endeavours.”

The NCEM has been one of the first arts organisations to stream online concerts, seeking to keep music alive since the beginning of lockdown and attracting a worldwide audience of more than 70,000 in the process.

Over the past few months, the NCEM has streamed a series of concerts from its archives, followed by the aforementioned York Early Music Festival Online with its combination of concerts and talks. The Director’s Cut, Delma’s selection of festival concert highlights, is available to download and keep. Go to ncem.co.uk for more details.

NCEM, Crescent and Fulford Arms line up 12 acts for Songs Under Skies garden gigs

Amy May Ellis: Opening open-air concert of the Songs Under Skies series in York

SONGS Under Skies will bring together the National Centre for Early Music, The Crescent, The Fulford Arms and the Music Venues Alliance for a September series of open-air acoustic concerts in York.

Taking part will be Amy May Ellis; Luke Saxton; Dan Webster; Bella Gaffney; Kitty VR; Boss Caine; Wolf Solent; Rosalind; Polly Bolton; Henry Parker; Elkyn and Fawn.

The setting will be the garden of St Margaret’s Church, home of the NCEM, for six double bills that will mark the return of audiences to the verdant Walmgate premises for the first time since the March lockdown.

Concerts for last month’s online York Early Music Festival had to be recorded and filmed behind closed doors at the NCEM, with no audiences, for digital streaming from July 9 to 11.

Boss Caine: Sharing the September 9 bill with Kitty VR

Songs Under Skies will take place on Wednesday and Thursday evenings between September 2 and 17. Gates will open at 6.30pm for each 7pm start; acts will perform either side of a 30-minute interval with a finishing time of 8.30pm. Social distancing will be strictly observed and masks must be worn inside the NCEM but will not be required in the garden.

Dates for the diary are: September 2, Amy May Ellis and Luke Saxton; September 3, Dan Webster and Bella Gaffney; September 9,  Kitty VR and Boss Caine; September 10, Wolf Solent and Rosalind; September 16, Polly Bolton and Henry Parker; September 17, Elkyn and Fawn.

NCEM director Delma Tomlin says: “We’re thrilled to be able to welcome artists and audiences back to our home at St Margaret’s Church, thanks to the invaluable help of our York partners, and I’d like to say a huge thank-you to them.

“We hope that this marks the beginning of a gradual and safe return to being able to bring you much more music over the months to come.

“We’re thrilled to be able to welcome artists and audiences back to our home at St Margaret’s Church,” says NCEM director Delma Tomlin

Like all arts organisations, the last few months have been difficult, but we’re lucky to have received overwhelming support from our loyal audiences and from our funders, to whom I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks. We hope you’ll be able to join us for these wonderful Songs Under [the] Skies of our beautiful city.”

Chris Sherrington, who runs The Fulford Arms and is the North East regional coordinator for the Music Venues Alliance, says: “Both The Crescent community venue and The Fulford Arms are excited to be working with our York Music Venue Network partners, the NCEM, to help fill some of the cultural vacuum that has sadly been affecting York since March.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to bring our expertise together and programme a beautiful series of shows in a safe and stunning space with a range of amazing talent. We hope this will be the first of many such endeavours.”

Bella Gaffney expressing her joy at the Songs Under Skies season being confirmed

The NCEM has been one of the first arts organisations to stream online concerts, seeking to keep music alive since the beginning of lockdown and attracting a worldwide audience of more than 70,000 in the process.

Over the past few months, the NCEM has streamed a series of concerts from its archives, followed by the aforementioned York Early Music Festival Online with its combination of concerts and talks. The Director’s Cut, Delma’s selection of festival concert highlights, is available to download and keep. Go to ncem.co.uk for more details.

Songs Under Skies tickets cost £6 per show and audiences are invited to buy tickets for family groups or as individuals. Seating will be in pods with a maximum audience capacity of 50. Full details can be found at tickets.ncem.co.uk/.

Opera North to Switch ON for autumn of outdoor events and digital projects

Song Of Our Heartland community rehearsals in Shildon in November 2019. Picture: Graeme Rowatt

OPERA North is ready to Switch ON for an autumn programme of outdoor events and digital projects after Covid-19 put paid to the indoor season.

Coming up will be Will Todd’s new community opera, Song Of Our Heartland, released as a film in a digital premiere in October; South African cellist and composer Abel Selaocoe’s new soundwalk for Leeds, As You Are, in November, and a new animation, La Petite Bohème, that re-interprets Act III of Puccini’s La Bohème in a digital project to be shown in northern cities in the run-up to Christmas.

First up, from Tuesday, August 18, will be a tour of socially distanced open-air performances of Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel for family audiences, concluding at the National Centre for Early Music, York, on September 5.

The re-arranged season “embodies the Leeds company’s commitment to make music with and for audiences in communities across the North of England, respecting Government guidelines on social distancing and live performances”.

In the coming weeks, Opera North plans further announcements of concerts and staged opera, either live or available digitally, as the national opera company responds to the changing Coronavirus guidelines.

Those guidelines forced the postponement of the previously planned season of large-scale operas that Opera North would have toured to theatres across northern England from September.

Richard Mantle, Opera North’s general director, says: “We are extremely pleased to be able to announce such varied projects as the first newly planned activity for this autumn. Switch ON is our first step back to sharing music and performance with audiences in villages, towns and cities across the North of England.

“We have not been silent during lockdown, with thousands of people from around the world engaging with films of our work online, from Wagner’s Ring cycle to The Turn Of The Screw, and over 1,000 amateur singers taking part in weekly lessons alongside the Chorus of Opera North in From Couch To Chorus, but we are delighted now to be announcing this first selection of new work.”

On Friday, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden confirmed that indoor performances with socially distanced audiences would be allowed from August 15, after the original re-opening date of August 1 was called off by Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the last minute.

Nevertheless, as Mantle says: “The overall picture regarding live indoor performances remains unclear over the next few months. We hope to be able to plan and present more live performance of great opera and music for audiences across our region, in as many different cities and communities as possible, once we are able to perform within social-distancing guidelines.

“We are currently undertaking detailed planning with our partner venues in Leeds [Leeds Grand Theatre] and beyond to ensure that we will be ready to restart performances safely and with financial viability, once there is a clear green light from the Government.”

In the meantime, tickets for Switch ON events will all be “accessibly priced”. “We hope as many people as possible will have the opportunity to experience music with us either live or digitally,” says Mantle.

“We are a partner in Leeds Says Thanks, an initiative by Leeds City Council to thank NHS and frontline workers for their enormous efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic; as part of this we will ensure that tickets to As You Are, our soundwalk for Leeds, will be made available to frontline staff.

“We remain committed to our purpose and whatever challenges we face, Opera North will continue to use music to create extraordinary experiences every day for and with the communities we serve. Live or digitally, in classrooms, theatres, homes and public spaces; we will continue to share music with people of all ages and backgrounds.”

All productions previously planned for Autumn 2020 – La Traviata, Jack The Ripper and Trouble In Tahiti/West Side Story Symphonic Dances, in association with Phoenix Dance Theatre – and  Winter (early) 2021 – Carmen, Alcina, and The Girl Of The Golden West – have been postponed and will be rescheduled over the next two years.

Opera North’s new concert staging of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, scheduled for concert halls across the country in Spring 2021, remains on sale.

For ticket details for Switch ON, go to operanorth.co.uk/.

Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel, when performed in 2017

SWITCH ON: Event information

Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel, August 18 to September 5

DEVISED and directed by John Savournin for four singers and accordion, Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel provides an introduction to opera for families, as well as being suitable for adults.

This 40-minute performance uses excerpts from Engelbert Humperdinck’s magical 1893 opera to retell the fairy tale of two hungry children, lost in the woods, and a gingerbread cottage that hides a scary secret.

Whistle Stop Opera: Hansel And Gretel will be performed in outdoor settings across the North in August and September, with social distancing in place for audience members and performers and limited numbers of tickets available, in accordance with Covid-19 guidelines.

Tickets will be on sale for “pods” of up to five people, with each space including two seats and a floor mat. Exact seating arrangements may vary from venue to venue; please check with venues for further details.

Performers include Laura Kelly-McInroy (Jennie Hildebrand in Street Scene, 2020) as Hansel; Jennifer Clark (Flora, The Turn Of The Screw, 2020) as Gretel; Claire Pascoe (Emma Jones, Street Scene, 2020; Witch, Into the Woods, 2016) as Mother/Witch, and director John Savournin (Carl Olsen, Street Scene, 2020; Priest Fotis, The Greek Passion, 2019) as Narrator/Sandman. Miloš Milivojević will play accordion.

Venues and dates: Slung Low, The Holbeck, Leeds, August 18, 4.30pm; Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, August 20, 1pm and 3pm; Ushaw House, Durham, August 22, 1pm and 3pm; Allendale Village Hall, Hexham, August 25, 6.30pm; The Lowry, Salford Quays, August 26, 11.30am and 1.30pm; Harewood House, Leeds, August 30, times to be announced; Stage@TheDock, Hull, September 2, times to be announced; Pontefract Castle, Pontefract, September 4, 4.30pm; National Centre for Early Music, York, September 5, 11.30am, 1pm and 3pm.

Song Of Our Heartland, October

THIS new community opera should have premiered at Locomotion, in Shildon, County Durham, in May 2020, but you know the rest.

Commissioned by Northern Heartlands, the Great Place scheme for County Durham, it was written by Durham-born composer Will Todd, with a storyline by Caroline Clegg and libretto by Emma Jenkins, and was developed in partnership with members of north-eastern communities.

However, after the cancellation of rehearsals and performances earlier in the year, Song Of Our Heartland now will be created digitally, with different elements recorded separately under social-distancing guidelines and pieced together as a 60-minute film, expected to be released in October 2020.

Participants in the Community Chorus and members of the community taking solo roles in the opera have been rehearsing with Opera North’s music team via Zoom sessions during lockdown; their parts will each be recorded individually.

Set in a town marked by declining industry and loss of civic spaces, Song Of Our Heartland is both a love letter to the landscape, the heritage and the people of the area and an act of storytelling by three generations of indomitable women.  

After the death of Harold, a former miner and railwayman, the opera shines a light on his family, his wife Lilian, daughter Jacqueline and granddaughter Skylar, as they face a stark choice between moving away to find jobs and new opportunities or staying to face an uncertain future. 

Forced by Harold’s death to remain and driven by her grandad’s spirit, Skylar fights to save the things that are most important to her: the school choir and the abandoned Moonlight Ballroom Theatre. 

Directed by Caroline Clegg and conducted by Holly Mathieson, the film of Song Of Our Heartland will be filmed on location at Locomotion and the surrounding County Durham area and recorded by the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North and the newly formed Community Chorus, with solo roles shared between members of the Chorus of Opera North and community participants.  

Clegg says: “Having had to cancel the planned live performances, everyone involved in the creation of Song Of Our Heartland was utterly determined to find a way to share this inspiring community opera with audiences this year.

“The people of south-west County Durham have been so generous in sharing their rich and diverse stories and experiences with us. Many of the participants have been with us all the way through this project, from the first poetry and drama workshops that inspired the story, the music and the libretto, to community chorus rehearsals and ultimately now to rehearsing online over Zoom and taking part in the film.

“This project exists because of them and I feel privileged to be a part of it. The opera is a celebration of their cultural legacy, their strength in community, and their hopes and dreams. We couldn’t let it disappear this year.”

Jill Cole, director of Northern Heartlands, says: “Song Of Our Heartland was intended to be the culmination of our work as a Great Place Scheme in south-west Durham. Although we were not able to perform it live, I am delighted that we have found a way to turn the project into a film, so that we can share it with others in the local community and beyond.

“It is a real tribute to this unique part of the county, its history and heritage, and to the communities who live and work here.” 

Abel Selaocoe: Composing an interactive soundwalk for Opera North’s home city of Leeds. Picture: Mlungisi Mlungwana

As You Are, November 14 2020 to January 6 2021

AS You Are, an interactive outdoor soundwalk for Opera North’s home city of Leeds, will be composedby South African cellist Abel Selaocoe. The journey will start and end at Victoria Gate, Leeds, following a route that will explore many of the city centre’s most recognisable landmarks, as well as its arcades and sidestreets and the River Aire waterfront.

Audience members taking part in the soundwalk in small groups each will be given a set of headphones connected to a wireless receiver, triggering new musical chapters at different points on the walk through Leeds, experiencing the cityscape through a new and transformative journey.

Taking inspiration from his South African heritage, Abel Selaocoe is creating music that embraces the healing power of walking. At times uplifting with full orchestra and chorus, at others reflective with only a single voice, As You Are expresses acceptance that there will be difficult times, but that we will come through to the other side.

To record the music, Selaocoe will be joined by guest African musicians such as Sidiki Dembele, as well as the full Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North.

“It is exciting to be writing during a time of incredible personal and collective change, focusing on the importance of celebrating resilience and being adaptable to change, by walking and exploring what is around us while we listen,” says Selaocoe.

As You Are will run in Leeds city centre from November 14 2020 to January 6 2021. Tickets will go on sale in September.

La Petite Bohème, in the run-up to Christmas

THE fourth Switch ON new project is an animation re-imagining Act III of Puccini’s La Bohème, snipped from black paper and animated by artist and filmmaker Matthew Robins with his customary eye for emotion and humour.

In the frozen streets of Paris, two pairs of lovers sing of their jealousy, passion and desire and wonder if they will still be together when spring comes again.

This heart-breaking scene from the core of Puccini’s classic opera will feature a newly recorded soundtrack by the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North and four soloists.

The finished animation will be projected outdoors in found spaces in towns and cities across the North, with limited audiences at each screening listening via headphones.

Projected on to walls in the familiar streets of our cities, the film and music will transform your surroundings and have the power to transport you to another time and place.

Artist and filmmaker Matthew Robins says: “I like trying to find my own way into telling a story that already exists. How can I make these characters mine? Do I see myself or my friends’ lives reflected in them? 

“Working with cut-out silhouettes is a way to create my own stylised version of the big emotions and melodies that are intrinsic to the piece. The stylised cut-out paper shapes are detailed but leave room for the audience to add their own imagination as well to the piece. 

“I come from the West Country and as a teenager used to visit London about six times a year just to queue up and get cheap front-row tickets for Rent, another retelling of La Bohème, so I feel like this story is deeply embedded in me, and in a way makes me feel at home exploring my own characters and settings for this story.”

Dates and locations for La Petite Bohème will be announced as soon as possible.

York Early Music Festival goes digital from today for three days of online concerts

A socially distant Consone Quartet recording their Breaking The Habit concert at the otherwise empty NCEM for the online 2020 York Early Music Festival

THE 2020 York Early Music Festival will be streamed online from this evening until Saturday.

Replacing the Covid-cancelled Method & Madness-themed live event from July 3 to 11, the revised remote festival now combines performances and talks by a line-up of performers based in England.

The virtual festival will be headlined by York countertenor Iestyn Davies and theorbo player Elizabeth Kenny in a concert streamed live tonight at ncem.co.uk, complemented by performances recorded over the past ten days by Steven Devine, Richard Boothby, Consone Quartet and Matthew Wadsworth.

Stile Antico will close the three-day event with a live concert on Saturday, performed, like all the rest, with no live audience at the National Centre for Early Music, at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate.

Since the decision was taken to cancel this year’s live festival, under the Coronavirus lockdown, organisers have been working hard behind the scenes to deliver the weekend-long programme of music.

Digital producer Ben Pugh’s technical equipment for recording the Consone Quartet concert for streaming on Saturday afternoon

To bring the online festival together, the NCEM has linked up with digital producer Ben Pugh, who has brought his ubiquitous expertise to the concert recordings and will be on hand, at a distance, to stream the live Davies & Kenny and Stile Antico concerts.

“We’ve purchased more video and sound equipment, so it’s more like a TV studio environment now,” says festival administrative director Dr Delma Tomlin. “It’s fortunate that the NCEM is a big space, being a church building, which will help with social distancing.”

Tonight, at 7.30pm, Davies and Kenny present A Delightful Thing, Music and Readings from a Melancholy Man, combining song and music by Elizabethan lutenist John Dowland with Davies’s extra string to his bow: his rendition of readings and poems by Dowland, Robert Burton, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Barnabe Googe, Ben Jonson, William Leighton, Henry Peacham, Leo Tolstoy and Rose Tremain.  

“To place John Dowland’s artistic output squarely in the frame of ‘Elizabeth melancholia’ is to strip away a richer layer of biography that lies within his crafted lines of music and words,” says Davies.

“Rather, by embracing the songs and solo lute airs as the expressions of a man seeking to find words to say how we fail, we engage in a dialogue that enriches both us and the artistic subject of John Dowland himself.”

Iestyn Davies: York countertenor opens the virtual 2020 York Early Music Festival tonight in tandem with theorbo player Elizabeth Kenny

Tomorrow, John Bryan begins the day with an illustrated introduction to the festivities at 10.30am, highlighting how each concert is linked by a theme of fantasy. This will be followed at 1pm by lute and theorbo player Matthew Wadsworth playing works by Kapsperger, Piccinini, Dowland and Francesco da Milano, plus Echoes In Air, a piece written specially for him by Laura Snowden.

“In a world where live music is in a very fragile place, I am grateful to have the opportunity to share this programme, while being sensitive to the fact that so many artists and arts organisation are in very difficult circumstances,” says Wadsworth.

“I have put together a programme of some of my favourite 17th century music, ending with a wonderful new piece written for me in 2019 by guitarist and composer Laura Snowden.

“When I was asked in 2019 to give a concert in the 2020 festival, I, along with everybody else, had no idea that we would be facing a pandemic together. As we adjust to a new normal, and start to find our way again, I am ever more convinced that music and the arts are an absolute necessity, not a luxury.”

Matthew Wadsworth and Kate Bennett Wadsworth recording tomorrow’s Echoes In Air concert

Wadsworth continues: “I am reminded how, when I moved abroad for the first time in 1997 to study in The Hague, I felt very lost and out of place.

“Music and the lute were a constant, and I realised I could take this source of security anywhere with me. I feel that same comfort and sense of reassurance today, knowing that live music – that most precious shared listening experience between artist and audience – has a past, present and a future.” 

At 3.30pm, harpsichord player Steven Devine performs JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Preludes & Fugues, from Book 1: Nos. 13 to 24. At 7.30pm, lyra viol player Richard Boothby plays music by Ferrabosco, Jenkins and Lawes,  alongside William Corkine’s virtuoso settings of popular tunes such as Come Live With Me and Be My Love. 

The BBC’s New Generation artists Consone Quartet open Saturday’s online programme at 1pm with Beethoven’s String Quartets Opus 18, Nos 2 & No 3.

“Performing Beethoven’s music is both an exciting and an exhausting experience,” says violinist Magdalena Loth-Hill, who plays alongside Agata Daraskaite, violin, Elitsa Bogdanova, viola, and George Ross, cello.

Devine inspiration: Steven Devine at the harpsichord in the stillness of the deserted National Centre for Early Music, recording Bach’s Preludes and Fugues

“The abrupt changes of dynamic, key and direction require the musicians to be alert and adaptable, both musically responsive and elastic in technique. This opus is particularly fascinating because it marks an important turning point in the history of the string quartet.

“It is clearly influenced by the classical form and structure of ‘Papa’ Haydn’s work, yet the listener can sense the winds of change blowing, and a new musical language on the horizon.”

At 3.30pm, York Early Music Festival luminary Peter Seymour, a titan of the York classical music world, will introduce the story behind his recording of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

The festival closes with vocal ensemble Stile Antico’s 7.30pm programme, Breaking The Habit: Music by and for women in Renaissance Europe, featuring works by Raffaella Aleotti; Sulpitia Cesis; Maddalena Casulana; Pierre de la Rue; Margaret of Austria; Leonora d’Este; Thomas Tallis; John Sheppard; William Byrd; John Taverner; John Bennett and Richard Carlton.

The 16th century saw an unprecedented number of female rulers,” says Delma, setting up the concert’s premise. “From the powerful Medici women of Italy to the great Tudor queens of England, women across Europe held more power than ever before. 

“Many of these monarchs used their patronage to facilitate the production of music of exquisite beauty by the finest composers of the day, extravagant showcases of their power contrasting with intimate and personal compositions. 

The recording set-up for Consone Quartet’s York Early Music Festival concert

“The century also saw the first publication of music by female composers, often Italian nuns, whose convents supported musical groups of astonishing ability.” 

Drawing attention to BBC Radio 3’s festival broadcasts, Delma says: “As an added treat, Radio 3 is presenting its Early Music Show from the festival on Sunday at 2pm, as we celebrate 35 years of supporting emerging ensembles through the York Early Music International Young Artists Competition.

“Radio 3 then completes our celebrations with two magnificent performances from our archive: The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers, on July 14, recorded in York Minster in 2015, and Jordi Savall’s Hesperion XX1, recorded in 2014 and now broadcast again on July 15.”

The NCEM was one of the first arts organisations to stream live concerts online during the Covid-19 crisis, beginning with performances by Steven Devine and The Brabant Ensemble. Since March, the fortnightly series of streamed concerts has  reached a worldwide audience of more than 70,000.

It is not too late to book tickets for the latest batch at tickets.ncem.co.uk and boxoffice@ncem.co.uk, with a festival package costing £30, individual concert tickets at £10 each and illustrated talks at £3.50 each.

“At this complicated time, it’s a great joy to be able to share music with our audiences once again,” says Delma. “The digital festival is a first for the NCEM and we look forward to people’s reactions.  Whatever else, everyone gets a front row seat!”  

“I would also like to thank Arts Council England, City of York Council, JWP Creers, Shepherd Group and Creative Europe for their invaluable support.”


Stile Antico, back in the days when you could share a stairway. Social distancing will prevail at their July 11 concert at the NCEM. Picture: Marco Borggreve

Did you know?

AFTER Saturday’s concert, Stile Antico will stay on at the NCEM for three days of recordings for their Mayflower project, now put back to 2021.

NEWSFLASH!

MARTIN Dreyer’s reviews of tonight’s opening concert by Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny and Saturday’s closing concert by Stile Antico will run on the CharlesHutchPress website.

And then there were two…as Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny perform online concert A Delightful Thing at NCEM

The loneliness of the socially distanced singer: Countertenor Iestyn Davies will have only lutenist Elizabeth Kenny for company, rather than the Dunedin Consort, at his York Early Music Festival concert

YORK countertenor Iestyn Davies should have been performing Bach: Countertenor Arias with Scottish instrumentalists the Dunedin Consort next Wednesday at the 2020 York Early Music Festival.

Instead, in a revised, streamlined, online version of the event now running from July 9 to 11, Iestyn switches from the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall to the National Centre for Early Music for a socially distanced concert with lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, streamed from an otherwise empty St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, at 7.30pm next Thursday. Empty save for technical manager Ben Pugh recording the performance from across the floor.

“When Delma [festival administrative director Dr Delma Tomlin] got in touch, initially she wondered, ‘Could you still do the concert with the Dunedin?’, but they’re based in Scotland and we couldn’t have the whole consort down here under lockdown rules, so we decided that I’d rather re-schedule that concert,” says Iestyn.

“But I said, ‘look, I’m already doing a concert with Liz at Wigmore Hall, we could do one at the NCEM too, where I could do the readings as well as sing and we can have the building to ourselves for the day’.”

Consequently, Davies and Kenny, a former artistic adviser to the York Early Music Festival and frequent performer at the NCEM, will present A Delightful Thing, Music and Readings from a Melancholy Man, wherein the music of Elizabethan lutenist John Dowland will be complemented by Davies’s renditions and readings of poetry by Robert Burton, Michael Drayton, Rose Tremain, Leo Tolstoy and Dowland himself. Kenny will play theorbo.

“Dowland is known for his music of extraordinary misery but utter beauty,” says Delma Tomlin. “He knew that in love, the only thing sweeter than happiness was sorrow. Few living interpreters understand his music more profoundly than Iestyn, who has devised this evening of poetry, music and drama for voice and lute to explore a composer for whom a single teardrop can hold a universe of emotion.”

Davies and Kenny’s Wigmore Hall concert was broadcast live from London on BBC Radio 3 on June 22, drawing 750,000 listeners to their 1pm performance of works by Purcell, Dowland, Campion, Johnson, Mozart and Schubert.

Lutenist Elizabeth Kenny: Iestyn Davies’s socially distanced accompanist on theorbo for A Delightful Thing

“Phew, it’s over,” Tweeted Iestyn immediately after the Lunchtime Concert, one of a series of 20 recitals presented in the stillness of a Wigmore Hall devoid of an audience every weekday in June as part of BBC Arts’ Culture in Quarantine initiative.

“It was an absolute joy,” says Iestyn, of his first concert performance since performing to a packed Metropolitan Opera at the Lincoln Center in New York City on March 7.

“But what was strange was that it felt like taking an exam. We did the rehearsal in the hall the day before, and you think, ‘it’s not going to change that much’, but Martin [presenter Martin Handley] was seated at a desk like an examiner, and there was just the hush of an audience listening on their radios, where normally there’s applause.

“The great thing about live music is that it’s ephemeral, you perform, then it’s over, and people remember it differently afterwards even though they were together. But this was more of an exam experience, where you have to wait for your results, and the only way you can tell how you did is in the reviews…though two people I know in York said straightaway they enjoyed it!”

Marking his 40th birthday on September 16 last year, Iestyn was only one concert into a four-concert residency at Wigmore Hall when Covid-19 intervened, but he was delighted to take up the invitation to partake in the season of BBC Radio 3 recitals, each featuring a singer and a musician, all from Britain.

“My regular recital partner, [French lutenist] Thomas Dunford, lives in Paris, so that ruled him out, but Liz and I have performed regularly together before, and she’s one of those wonderful multi-strings-to-her-bow musicians, what with her being director of performance at the University of Oxford and professor of Lute at the Royal Academy of Music,” says Iestyn.

“I learnt that it’s good to give your voice a rest for three months,” says countertenor Iestyn Davies

New York in March, then silence, before the Davies-Kenny concerts this summer. “What’s been wonderful in lockdown has been there’s been no fear of missing out,” says Iestyn. “I also learnt that it’s good to give your voice a rest for three months.”

Rested…and now that pure, pure voice is in fine working order again: “Like getting back on a bike, or going back to the gym, it all starts to flow, though they say it’s one day’s work for every week you have off, but generally I try to pace things out anyway,’” says Iestyn. “When you’re busy with work, you press ‘Start’ and you know how to run the engine.”

Before the Wigmore Hall concert, he was able to “get back into the swing of singing” when recording 20 Schubert songs over four of five days in Suffolk, “singing carefully” five to six hours a day.

Iestyn may be happy to be performing once more, but he is perturbed by the Covid cloud hanging heavily over the performing arts world, the alarm bell clanging ever louder with the rise of the Let The Music Play campaign amid the calls for urgent financial support for venues and artists alike.

“No-one chose this situation, so it shouldn’t be about a popular vote, but Boris Johnson and [Culture Secretary] Oliver Dowden are playing to the gallery, the Prime Minister trying to win points by saying you can go to the pub,” says Iestyn.

“What they’ve done to the arts is devolve responsibility both financially and philosophically, and of course it doesn’t help that some people think of the arts the way they do.”

Before it is too late, you can play your part in supporting the arts by buying tickets  for the online York Early Music Festival at tickets.ncem.co.uk and boxoffice@ncem.co.uk, with a festival package at £30, individual concert tickets at £10 each and illustrated talks at £3.50 each. Access to the festival events is via ncem.co.uk, where full details of the July 9 to 11 programme can be found too.

Sollazzo Ensemble and BarrocoTout re-live York triumphs in NCEM online concerts

Sollazzo Ensemble: 2017 winners of the York Early Music International Young Artists Competition

THE National Centre for Early Music’s lockdown season of free concerts from York presents a double bill of Sollazzo Ensemble and BarrocoTout on Saturday.

“We have selected the very best concerts from two ensembles who won the York Early Music International Young Artists Competition in 2015 and 2017 respectively,” says director Dr Delma Tomlin.

To view these concerts for free at 1pm, follow facebook.com/yorkearlymusic/ or log on to the NCEM website, ncem.co.uk.

Directed by mediaeval fiddle player Anna Danilevskaia, joined by sopranos Perrine Devillers and Yukie Sato, tenor Vivien Simon, fiddle player Sophia Danilevskaia and harpist Vincent Kibildis, the Swiss group were recorded on July 11 2015.

Formed in 2014 in Basel, Switzerland, where the members were all studying at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, that year they were selected for the “EEEmerging” programme supported by Creative Europe, going on to win the main prize in the YorkEarly Music International Young Artists Competition and the public’s Friends of York Early Music Festival Prize in 2015.

They built their winning performance around Jehan de Cordoval and Jehan Ferrandes, two blind fiddle players in the 15th century court of Burgundy, playing works by Guillaume Dufay and Loyset Compère, among others, that they would have peformed .

Cordoval and Ferrandes caught our attention because, unlike many medieval musicians known today, they were famous exclusively as performers, not as composers or theorists,” said Anna.

BarrocoTout: 2015 winners of the York Early Music International Young Artists Competition

“Soloists before the time of soloism: the simple fact of their existence and their success offers us a perspective on the richness of the musical scene at the Burgundian court in the 15th century.” 

BarracoTout, from Belgium, were recorded on July 15 2017 when winning the York Early Music International Young Artists Competition, having been selected in 2015 for the EEEmerging programme (EEE standing for ‘Emerging European Ensembles’)

Carlota Garcia, flute, Izana Soria,violin, Edouard Catalan, cello, and Ganael Schneider, harpsichord, presented To Paris And Back: Return, a programme of 17th and 18th century works by Henri-Jacques de Croes, Jean-Marie Leclair and Georg Philipp Telemann.  

In 2018, they recorded their first album for Linn Records, La Sonate Égarée, an album dedicated to Henri-Jacques de Croes.

Izana Soria said of her fellow Belgian: “Born in Antwerp, de Croes was an important innovator of his time. He was maître de musiqueof the Chapelle Royale in Brussels and Frankfurt, and, like Telemann, able to synthesise the Italian, French and German styles in his sonatas and symphonies.

“The Largo of his sixth sonata has an operatic lyricism, whereas the Fuga combines markedly rhythmical passages, typically baroque dissonances and pre-classical articulations, with a polished and convincing result.”

Formed in Brussels in 2013, BarrocoTout take their name from a sketch on the Spanish comedy show Muchachada Nui: Barroco Tu (meaning “Baroque yourself”), and their mission is to explore work written for their four-piece formation by well-known composers, while also re-discovering other composers who have fallen into oblivion.

NCEM goes online in May with inspirational archival recordings and fancy footwork

Palisander: Watch out for spiders in all that foliage

THE National Centre for Early Music, York, will continue to reach out from behind closed doors to provide inspirational music online with a series of concerts throughout May.

Confirmed for next month are Palisander, Beware The Spider!, on Saturday (May 2); Rumorum, Medieval Music for voices and instruments, May 16, and European Union Baroque Orchestra, Handel & Bach, May 30, all starting at 1pm.

To view these concerts for free, follow https://www.facebook.com/yorkearlymusic/ or log on to the NCEM website, ncem.co.uk, where you also can find details of the Cuppa And A Chorus community singing sessions, now on Zoom, plus other NCEM news and more concert footage.

Palisander’s fancy footwork

In Beware The Spider!, first performed at the NCEM in March 2019, the young recorder quartet explore the Tarantella, the effects of a venomous spider bite, and the curious world of folk medicine. 

Fast moving and fun, with some fancy footwork to boot, the Palisander programme combined music by Vivaldi and many others with an entertaining narrative.

Like Palisander, Rumorum first played Medieval Music for voices and instruments at the NCEM in March 2019. These 12th to 15th century music specialists turn back the clock to the time of Medieval Europe when musicians travelled across the continent, gathering stories, sharing knowledge of love, pain and exile.

Rumorum: Rebec,, harp, flute and voice ensemble

This youthful ensemble formed while studying medieval performance at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland and took York classical audiences by storm when winning the York Early Music Festival Friends’ Prize in the 2017 festival competition.  “If you can’t quite visualise a rebec, harp, flute and voice ensemble, this is your chance,” says NCEM director Delma Tomlin.

European Union Baroque Orchestra’s concert recording dates from March 2017, led by director and harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen, who was joined that day by soloists Maria Keohane, soprano, Bojan Cicic, concertmaster,and Neven Lesage, oboe.

The concert was performed to celebrate Early Music Day 2017 on the birthday of JS Bach. “Entitled Betrayal And Betrothal, it features music by Bach and Handel and provides an exciting opportunity to hear this outstanding group again, presenting one of their last ever performances on stage,” says Delma.

“Keeping in touch with our audiences is so important to us in these difficult times,” says NCEM director Delma Tomlin

As an added bonus”, harpsichordist extraordinaire Steven Devine will “help you beat the blues” with Bach Bites – bite size chunks to inspire and uplift – every Wednesday evening at 6pm.

Delma says: “Keeping in touch with our audiences is so important to us in these difficult times and we’re delighted to be able to bring you this eclectic selection of archival recordings from concerts recorded over the past couple of years.

“We’re also continuing our Cuppa And A Chorus event, where people can meet regularly to sing in a relaxed environment. We’re now meeting virtually on Zoom, so even though we can’t be together, we can all try and stay in touch.”