University of York Music Department Practical Project: Antigone, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, November 3 to 5
REWRITING Sophocles is a dangerous exercise. The tragedy Antigone is the last of his so-called Theban trilogy and a cornerstone of western drama, as relevant today as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago.
Seamus Heaney wrote a concise version of the story, leaning towards poetry, while Jean Anouilh’s play, inspired by the Nazi occupation of Paris, explores its meaning.
Sadly, Jon Hughes’s abridged paraphrase is not in either category. Its use in the university music department’s latest Practical Project, a rite of passage designed to welcome and incorporate the latest intake of undergraduates, meant that barely half the evening, its incidental music, was devised by the students themselves.
His introduction mentioned Antigone’s possible parallels with Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai. Yet his play remained rooted firmly in ancient Greece, whereas a modern scenario – surely not beyond the wit of these talented students – might have justified reinterpreting this ancient text.
The net result was that the ‘theatrical’ side of this drama, co-directed by Lucy Grehan-Bradley and Roseanna Schmidt, was seriously undercooked. Despite the use of face microphones, too few of the actors observed two basic rules: face your audience and project to the back row. Dialogues were carried on quietly like conversations over a cup of coffee rather than shared with the audience.
There were notable exceptions. Kieran Crowley’s Tiresias, who also voiced the prologue, made a laudable attempt to inject drama into his lines. So too did Christina-Alexandra Higgins as Antigone’s sister Ismene, albeit in a much briefer appearance.
Dom Sutton’s Creon, a pivotal figure here, at least made us aware of his dilemma as a ruler whose power base might crumble. But Katerina Poulios, despite singing her lament with conviction, otherwise gave a shy, retiring Antigone, quite the reverse of the figure found in Sophocles. Several lesser characters despatched their lines robotically, as if barely involved.
Things were altogether better on the musical front. The seven episodes of the drama were interwoven with 11 musical interludes which generally exhibited admirable craftsmanship. Musical director Becky Lund, who took the lion’s share of the conducting with considerable authority, also contributed a War Prelude of heavy percussion and catchy rhythms. Helen Southernwood offered a passionate lament for Ismene in modal minor style, although her concept of ‘continuo’ – unabated background noise, even during the interval – was less appealing.
There were several attempts to bring back choral speaking, which enjoyed a certain fashion before the Second World War. But this hall is so unkind to speech that they were regrettably doomed to failure and proved virtually unintelligible.
Anna Benton’s neo-Romantic lament for Antigone was intriguing, however, and Anna Nightingale’s two odes used a wide range of techniques. Both choir and orchestra showed great commitment under duress. But in the end the formula was too prescriptive, as if to ward off failure rather than taking risks and allowing full rein to the new students’ imaginations.
THE resumption of the University of York’s Live Concert series was greeted with a full house on Wednesday. No wonder: we were there to welcome a titan of the keyboard.
Stephen Hough was in pugnacious mood, as well he might be after prolonged lockdown, a hungry lion newly released from his cage. He had chosen to satisfy his appetite on meaty chunks of Schumann and Chopin, leavened by two British composers, Alan Rawsthorne and Hough himself.
Rawsthorne’s Bagatelles, his first serious piano music that coincided with his first international recognition in 1938, launched Hough straight into a tempestuous whirlwind, although that was soon moderated by more pensive lyricism, a skittish interlude and a sad duologue between the hands, as if looking back at what might have been these past two years.
Forward-looking Schumann, stretching tonality as far as he ever did, came with Kreisleriana, dedicated to Chopin but written in 1838 with Clara Wieck in mind, in the long run-up to their marriage two years later.
The two sides of Schumann’s personality, fiery Florestan and easy-going Eusebius, actually mirrored the eccentric conductor Kreisler (a figment of E T A Hoffmann’s imagination), who is pictured here in eight “fantasies”, in G minor or its relative major, B flat.
In truth, it was Florestan who had much the upper hand in this account, with the forte passages cumulatively becoming an angry tour de force and the slower melodies tending towards moodiness. But there always a keen sense of shape, even when Schumann was at his most temperamental.
Hough’s own five-movement Partita, written only two years ago, proved a substantial treat. The martial opening of its Overture returns in driven style after a flightier Trio (such as every march should have), before a cute little coda.
A jittery Capriccio and two eloquent song-and-dance routines inspired by Mompou, the one very high, the other elegiac, preceded a hugely demanding Toccata, which could not help recalling Widor’s eponymous movement from his Fifth Symphony. It reached a breath-taking climax.
Finally, to more familiar Chopin, which was greeted with rapt attention. Ballade No 3 came across as an entity, rather than a series of episodes and its continuity was wholly convincing.
Hough’s unique ability to sustain a melody had really begun to emerge. In two nocturnes we were in piano heaven, with the most delicate of decorations in the F sharp (Op 15 No 2) and a gorgeously restrained, barely audible ending to the E flat (Op 9 No 2).
There was considerable urgency in the Second Scherzo, in B flat minor, which meant a mildly garbled ending when it accelerated, but by now Hough could do no wrong. This virtuoso lion was taking no prisoners – and we loved him for it. What a return!
FORTUNE favours the brave. Back in May when the Covid outlook was far from clear, the British Music Society of York (BMS) took the courageous decision to go ahead with their 100th season in October. It had already been delayed a year.
This quintet – a string quartet with added cello – was the happy result, in a members-only evening last Friday.
Schubert’s incomparable String Quintet in C was preceded by the world premiere of an engaging new BMS commission for the same forces from Nicola LeFanu, one of the society’s two vice-presidents.
Titled simply Quintet and lasting some 20 minutes, it lives up to the composer’s typically lucid programme-note as a combination of celebration and reflection, which are mirrored in two contrasting themes. The faster of these provides a rondo motif while the slower inspires its diversions.
The device works excellently. The two cellos generally operate as a pensive pair, while the higher strings interrupt, sometimes intensely, always excitedly, often preferring a catchy iambic rhythm when not adding twinkling filigrees. But all of the instruments have something individual to say.
At the centre of the work is a solemn chorale, after which the second cello has a broad, yearning passage – which Tim Lowe attacked with relish. This is the signal for mounting urgency that is capped by a return to the opening cello duet at the close. Did I detect here the semitone with which Schubert so determinedly ends his quintet?
The Sacconi and Lowe brought fervent application to their task, clearly enjoying its challenge. The music makes real sense on a first hearing, but would also repay deeper listening. It certainly commends itself as a partner to the Schubert.
Any players faced with one of the towering monuments of Western music will feel humbled. This manifests itself in different ways. Here there was a studied intensity to the first two movements of the Schubert, before an earthier Scherzo and a finale infused with the spirit of dance.
The mood of anticipation in the introduction was satisfied when the Allegro got going, but the repeat of the exposition was much tauter (and rhythms wittier too) than its first statement.
Second cellist Lowe was the engine, as in several places later, for the development section. He also ignited more fire in the middle of the slow movement – although the pregnant rests that followed were a tutti effort, before the heart of the Adagio hovered beautifully again.
In the Scherzo, the ensemble really began to relax, so much so that its Trio almost ground to a halt, it was so leisurely. In the circumstances, the return of the Scherzo came almost as a relief.
The finale, so often a let-down in this work, was anything but: there was even an element of mystery before the main theme returned. Doubt lingered as to whether all five players shared the same overall vision for this piece. But the BMS is back in business. Hurrah!
THE inaugural York New Music Weekend will be launched on Friday at the University of York.
Running for three days but staying online for longer, this new annual festival celebrates contemporary music in York.
Under the theme of Time-Space-Sound-Light, the weekend centres on the work of Christian Mason, an award-winning composer and alumnus of the University of York’s department of music.
The online event includes premieres of new pieces and music by the composers who have influenced him, performed by members of The Octandre Ensemble, The Assembled, pianist Rolf Hind and The Chimera Ensemble.
Interviews and recordings contribute to a rounded profile of this leading British young composers.
In Friday’s opening 1pm concert, recorded at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, The Chimera Ensemble, Britain’s largest student-run contemporary music ensemble, present new works by student composers Emily Linane (Flute Miniature), Lucy Havelock (that silk, unrestricted), Joe Bates (Cataracts), Fred Viner (Bells Wrung) and Becky Davidson-Lund (Shade And Light).
After Axeman by University of York alumna and BBC 6 Music favourite Anne Meredith, the concert concludes with a piece as reflective as its title, Pauline Oliveros’s Mirrorrorrim.
Based on the theme of expressing the visual, the Chimera programme weaves its way from mirrors to luminosity and the nature of bells, exploring colour and texture while featuring an unconventional use of fabric, amplification and distortion.
At 7pm on Friday, Rolf Hind’s online piano concert, Nature, Lockdown And Dreams Of Travel, includes Hind’s Bhutani and Hind et al’s Lockdown Sequence (pieces written for Hind in lockdown from a call on Facebook), Matthew King’s When Birds Do Sing, Christian Mason’s Three Waves From Afar, Elaine Michener’s Tree Scream and Messiaen’s Le Loriot from Catalogue d’Oiseaux.
Online on Saturday at 7pm, pianist Hind and Mason (rin bells, harmonica, electronics) join fellow members of The Octandre Ensemble, Audrey Milhères (piccolo, flute) and Corentin Chassard (cello, scordatura cello) to perform Mason’s Just As The Sun Is Always.
In Sunday’s 1pm online concert, pianist Kate Ledger and The Assembled present the world premiere of Androgynette, a multimedia work by Ledger, James Redelinghuys and artist Angie Guyton. Watch Three Refractions Of A Body Etude on Ledger’s YouTube channel for a flavour of what to expect.
At the festival’s second concert by The Chimera Ensemble, the university’s new music ensemble, on Sunday at 7pm, the focus turns to new works by composers, largely from Yorkshire and the North East, alongside student works.
Again recorded at the Lyons, the programme comprises: Ed Cooper’s …incantations fixate…; Linda Catlin-Smith’s Knotted Silk; Nicholas Peters, Placebo; Michele Abondano, The Shimmer Beneath: A Scattering Attempt; James McLeish, Crimson; Rossa Juritz, the sound of wooden dusk; Rebecca Peake, Purple Smoke, and Yue Ming’s The Eternal Circle, plus reprises of Anna Meredith’s Axeman and Pauline Oliveros’s Mirrorrorrim.
This programme considers time, colour, texture and fabric, typified by Catlin-Smith’s irregularly spaced Knotted Silk and Peters’ rhythmically forceful Placebo as The Chimera Ensemble inhabit an exhilarating array of sound worlds.
Among other events this weekend is an interactive video collaboration of dance, music and cinematography between the Scottish Ensemble, Scottish Dance Theatre and composer Martin Suckling, entitledthese bones, this flesh, this skin.
This Watch Anytime feature is a digital work for solo violin and solo dancer by composer Martin Suckling, choreographer Joan Clevillé and cinematographer Genevieve Reeves. Through a bespoke online platform, audience members are invited to combine different audio and visual layers to decide how they want to experience the work in multiple iterations.
Born out of this unique period in our lives, the piece “explores how heightened attention can reveal different experiences of time in our bodies and the environment around us”. This layering of simplicity and complexity also manifests in the way the viewer/listener is asked to make decisions.
In a nutshell, “with every new iteration, we discover new perspectives, new nuances waiting for us in the spaces in between music, cinematography and dance, between the traces of our own memories and the aliveness of our attention.”
Another Watch Anytime feature, Distanced Modularity, is presented by Jethro Bagust, Lynette Quek and Ben Eyes, who contend that “the pandemic has been a disaster of unimaginable proportions. Making art and music during such a time, while others are suffering and enduring great hardship, seems futile.
“However, music and art are a great comfort to many, perhaps not more so than the musicians themselves and the social interaction that plays an indelible role in music.”
Using the Ninjam server set-up at York to synchronise two geographically distant modular synth set-ups; Bagust and Eyes explore how streams of found audio, real-time modular synthesis, stochastic compositional processes and video (courtesy of Lynette Quek) can be merged online to create a real-time audio-visual miasma. The piece was recorded live in one take after several distanced rehearsals.
Jethro says: “The instrument I play is populated with numerous chance elements that are linked to musical parameters. These elements of uncertainty blur the distinction between the roles of performer, composer, and audience because we are all hearing the music for the first time.
“Improvising with indeterminate instruments such as this, that defer the note by note production to algorithms, might be akin to steering an animal that you can point in a particular direction but not precisely know their behaviour.
“There is a tension between the human and the machine; the player must listen and react, responding to the system at an indirect meta-level.
The pre-recorded audio sources are from John Cage and Morton Feldman, In Conversation, Radio Happening I of V, recorded at WBAI, New York City, 1966-1967.
“Ben’s own set-up is based around a custom Max/Msp patch, linked to a modular synth, that allows real-time interaction with musical sequences and rhythms. Influenced by dub and techno, sound sources in the system are filtered, delayed and reverberated live in the mix to create musical form and progression,” says Jethro.
The festival’s five concerts, all recorded live, will be complemented by a round-table discussion on Sunday at 2pm when the speakers will be British composers and musicologists Martin Suckling, Minyung Im, Carmen Troncoso Caceres, Richard Kearns and Catherine Laws, in response to the pandemic-enforced closure of venues generating an explosion of online music-making.
Join the creative teams behind the festival’s Watch Anytime features, these bones, this flesh, this skin, Ceci n’est pas un piano and Between Air, Clay And Woods Of Certain Flutes, as they discuss ways to approach online performance beyond the “filmed concert” paradigm.
“Explore their online features and bring your questions to this interactive session,” comes the invitation to an event hosted on Zoom. Ticketholders will be emailed the Zoom link the day before the event.
All events are free but booking is required at yorkconcerts.ticketsolve.com/shows. Ticketholders can watch all the performances on demand until Sunday, July 11 at 23.59pm.
REVIEW: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Brass (and other thoughts), Leeds Town Hall, October 24
TWELVE heroes from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – ten brass players and two percussionists – travelled to Leeds on Saturday to play before an audience of around five dozen.
Simon Wright conducted them in a stimulating mixed bag of music from the last 130 years, plus an early interjection from Giovanni Gabrieli.
Harmless though this may sound, the event was hugely significant. Locally based groups, notably from Opera North, have been appearing at the Town Hall since late August. But this was the first time that a professional ensemble from further afield had appeared there since lockdown.
Later this week, there will be two lunchtime events and three evening lieder recitals, all given by musicians of international standing. And that’s just on the classical side. So, it can be done, all within the regulations: distanced seating, masks worn by the audience, no interval or refreshments. But these are small privations compared to the thrill of live music returning. Leeds Playhouse has been equally adventurous.
In other cities, the silence continues to be deafening. Take York, for example, normally a bastion of classical performance. The Minster, the Barbican, University of York’s Central Hall, all are large venues well suited to music and easily adaptable to the new conditions.
Smaller but equally adaptable is the National Centre for Early Music and the university’s Lyons Concert Hall. All remain resolutely shut. Why? Hasn’t government (our) money been made available to keep such venues open?
Back to the brass. They opened with an ingenious arrangement of Elgar’s Cockaigne (In London Town) by one of their own, trombonist Matthew Knight. Given its complexity, it was a surprising choice as opener and took a while to settle.
But the main theme emerged triumphant on the trombones just in time for the accelerando towards the close. With the Town Hall so empty, and therefore even more resonant than usual, Gabrieli’s Canzon on the seventh tone had a regal clarity, comparable surely to St Mark’s Venice itself, as the two quartets bounced off another; it might have made a better curtain-raiser.
Imogen Holst’s Leiston Suite (1967) delivered five neatly concentrated miniatures, including a sparkling fanfare, a balletic jig and several flashes of her father’s spare harmony, all tastefully interwoven.
Eric Crees’ skilful arrangements of three Spanish dances by Granados were enchantingly idiomatic, rays of mediterranean sunshine. The colours in Duke Ellington’s bluesy Chelsea Bridge were more muted.
Hartlepool-born Jim Parker’s name may not be on everyone’s lips, but most of us have heard his music through his soundtracks for Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War, Moll Flanders and any number of films. Why he has four BAFTAS to his name became clear in A Londoner In New York (1987), five attractive cameos of the city’s buzz, including steam engines at Grand Central, a romantic walk in Central Park, and the can-can chorus line at Radio City.
London came to Leeds here and we may all be grateful for the glimpse of normality.