The last dinner party? Not the in vogue band but York company Griffonage Theatre staging Patrick Hamilton’s thriller Rope

Carly Bednar in rehearsal for her role as Leila Arden in Griffonage Theatre’s Rope. Picture: Ella Tomlin

HALFWAY through her MA in theatre studies, Katie Leckey is directing York company Griffonage Theatre in their Theatre@41 debut in Patrick Hamilton’s thriller Rope from Wednesday to Saturday.

Built around an invitation to a dinner party like no other, against the backdrop of Britain’s flirtation with fascism, this 1929 whodunit states exactly who did it, but the mystery is: will they be caught? Cue a soiree full of eccentric characters, ticking clocks and hushed arguments.

Leckey’s cast comprises predominantly actors aged 21 or 22: Nick Clark as Wyndham Branson; Will Obson as Charles Granillo; Jack Mackay as Rupert Cadell; Carly Bednar as Leila Arden; Peter Hopwood as Kenneth Raglan and Molly Raine as Sabot.

They will be joined by two older actors, Liam Godrey as Sir Johnstone Kentley and Frankie Hayes as Mrs Debenham. Alicia Oldsbury is the set designer; Grace Trapps, the costumier; Margaux Campbell, the fight choreographer.

“We are so excited to have audiences begin to see this show!” says Katie. “It’s been something of a passion project for me and the entire process has been so rewarding already.”

Katie Leckey directing the University of York Gilbert and Sullivan’s Society’s Patience, aloongside production manager Sam Armstrong. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick

Here, CharlesHutchPress puts questions to director Katie Leckey on staging Rope, the rise of Griffonage Theatre and her plans for the year ahead.

When and where did you form Griffonage Theatre?

“We were formed about a year ago after a University of York Shakespeare Society production of Julius Caesar that I directed and in which my fellow co-artistic director, Jack Mackay, played Caesar.

“We realised that we had very similar creative styles and overlapping interests during that rehearsal process and this sparked a discussion about how we could branch out of university and into the York theatre scene.

Griffonage Theatre co-artistic director Jack Mackay rehearsing his role as Rupert Cadell. Picture: Ella Tomlin

“We were keen to put on plays that are underperformed (like Rope) or a little bit strange, silly or macabre! York is the perfect place to do this as there’s such a wealth of storytelling potential and inspiration everywhere!

“Jack and I like to (half) joke that we would get nothing done without our amazing executive producer, Anna Njoroge, who is basically a wizard at organisation and the main reason our ideas aren’t sitting dormant in our heads!”

How is the University of York involved?

“Like I say, Griffonage wouldn’t have been born had it not been for the university’s performance societies and the experience that we got from being involved in those. Jack is now chair of the Shakespeare Society, and I learnt a lot from directing and performing with and eventually being the chair of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, especially about adapting older texts for audiences today in an accessible way – something that is a real goal of our company.

“Jack is studying English Literature at the uni, and I just finished the same degree for my undergraduate studies, so we’re also very keen to explore new writing and ways of facilitating that being put on in the city, alongside putting on adaptations of more well-established playwrights.”

Molly Raine’s Sabot, left, and Frankie Hayes’ Mrs Debenham. Picture: Ella Tomlin

What is your specialist focus in your MA in theatre studies?

“I’m halfway through my MA in theatre-making and it’s just amazing! I’m very interested in physical theatre and clowning in my individual practice as a performer. As a director, though, I find the juiciest plays are the ones that have darker themes that I can present through the guise of light-heartedness.

“I think the best plays are ones that aren’t easily labelled as one thing or another, which is why I’m drawn to surrealist and absurdist themes and imagery as well. The MA has equipped me so far with lots of practical skills in running rehearsals, workshops and (perhaps most importantly) working with others in an ensemble to create interesting and often experimental art.”

What first brought you to York?

“I’m originally from Northern Ireland – from the rural town of Ballyclare about 20 minutes away from Belfast – and came over here to study for my undergrad degree – I liked it so much that I’ve decided to stay! It’s just the most gorgeous, historic place and I love the fact that everyone knows everyone somehow or other! Also being able to access so much theatre and arts on my doorstep here was definitely a draw as well.

Katie Leckey exercising her comedic chops as Samuel Beckett in University of York Drama Society’s 2023 Edinburgh Fringe show, Dan Sinclair’s The Courteous Enemy. Picture:Tegan Steward 

Where did you take your first steps in theatre?

“I was so privileged to have a great drama teacher at my secondary school, who put on a musical in our assembly hall every year! My first production was Annie when I was around 13 or so, and I just remember growing in confidence after each rehearsal and the feeling of becoming an entirely different person for a few hours!

“As time went on, I had singing lessons and just kept acting in anything I could on the side of everything else. Obviously, I enjoy the bigger picture of storytelling, because I decided to do an English Lit degree, but it was only when I was given the chance to direct Patience as part of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society in my second year of Uni (after a bit of a hiatus from all things theatre during Covid) that all the stars aligned for me.

“I realised that directing was a way of combining all my passions and interests into one activity! And I’ve been absolutely determined tm make, and be in, as much theatre as I can ever since!”

Katie Leckey as the Duchess in University of York Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s 2023 production of The Gondoliers. Picture: Charlie Kirkpatrick 

Hence the rise of Griffonage Theatre. Why choose that name?

“If you ask the dictionary, Griffonage means ‘careless handwriting: a crude or illegible scrawl’. Jack and I felt like the word really summed up our creative process – something that’s a little careless, crude (mostly from my end) or even illegible is usually the spark for our ideas, and we are so passionate about how we turn these scrawls into something palpable for audiences to enjoy!

“We also liked how it has connotations with the mythical beast the Griffin, as we’re constantly in awe of things that are inexplicable, fantastical and ancient.”

What is Griffonage Theatre’s mission statement?

“We are a team of York-based storytellers who leap at the opportunity to shock and delight. We revel in the grotesque, in the weaving of new worlds, and in sharing the beauty and terror of humanity’s strangest stories.

“Our ambition is to reveal the dark hearts of stories across a wide range of genres: to galvanise narratives that have been lost and to foster the creation of exciting, original work.”

Griffonage Theatre’s cast for Poe In The Pitch Black at the Perky Peacock cafe. Picture: Lotty Farmer

What has the company done so far?

“We had a sold-out site-specific show, Poe In The Pitch Black, at the Perky Peacock café [in the mediaeval, wood-beamed Barker Tower on North Street]. We adapted three of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories and told them in the dark, using age-old practical theatrical techniques to spook our audiences!

“We crammed them in! We were able to get 20 spectators in, along with five actors. It was definitely a squeeze in the lower room!

“A particular highlight of the show was the creation of a puppet for the character of the old man in the Tell Tale Heart (performed by Will Osbon, who is returning to play Charles Granillo in Rope), which we were told sufficiently creeped out a lot of our audience!”

How did the chance to perform at Theatre@41 emerge?

“I had the joy of performing in York Settlement Community Players’ Government Inspector last October and got to know the brilliant Alan Park [Theatre@41’s chair], as he was directing the show!

Katie Leckey’s Dobchinsky in York Settlement Community Players’ Government Inpector. Picture: Sarah Ford

“I approached him with the idea of putting a play on at the theatre and was completely shocked that he didn’t shrug me off right away; in fact he was keen that we got everything sorted as soon as possible!

“It’s truly a privilege to be able to put our show on at all, never mind in a space at the heart of the community in York! It’s just so special!”

What attracted you to Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play Rope?

“It’s just genius. Its readability was the first thing that struck me – the stage directions are a hoot! I really recommend for people to read the play, as well as watching it, as it really is fantastic. Hamilton’s grasp of character is phenomenal.

“The play is at once funny and dark, light but intense, deeply philosophical yet entirely playful. I was also fascinated by the fact that it was so heavily concerned with the rise of British fascism pre-World War Two. It’s such a poignant meditation on war, justice, self-awareness and the value of all human life.

Liam Godfrey as Sir Johnstone Kentley, left, Nick Clark as Wyndham Brandon and Peter Hopwood as Kenneth Raglan in the Rope rehearsal room. Picture: Ella Tomlin

“It’s also genuinely hilarious and includes a lot of delightful witticisms and snarky comments. The fact that it is based on a real murder case also intrigued me greatly. With the growing popularity of ‘true crime’ as a genre, it’s utterly fascinating to see a play that attempts to directly confront its viewers with their own desire to witness violence and its consequences.

“It’s very interesting from a queer perspective as well. Without spoiling too much, I would recommend contemplating what the overt and implied relationships between the characters say about the implications of the story itself.

What does Rope say to a modern audience?

“Aside from a few 1920s slang terms, Rope is inherently modern in its sensibilities, despite the fact it has nearly been 100 years since its first performance. (Indeed, this isn’t surprising considering Hamilton coined the thoroughly modern word ‘gaslight’).

“This is why we’ve chosen to make the set look like it hasn’t been moved for 100 years – as something of a time capsule, but also a direct reflection of today. The play acts as a warning for what can happen if you let insidious beliefs and attitudes fester, but beyond this it asks the audience to evaluate themselves what justice looks like, and if it is attainable or desirable at all.

“Furthermore, it delights in the small things: dancing, eating, drinking and socialising – reminding audiences that while they should be alert to little cruelties and genuine evils alike, there is still some good in most people, and this can be seen in the most unlikely of circumstances, including an outré dinner party.”

Mollie Raine’s Sabot and Nick Clark’s Wyndham Brandon in a light moment mid-rehearsal. Picture: Ella Tomlin

Have you seen Alfred Hitchcock’s groundbreaking single-take 1948 film version, shot with the camera kept in continuous motion?

“I love this question! Yes! I actually watched it as soon as I finished reading theplay for the first time! I remember turning to Jack in utter amazement at somemoments (mostly when Jimmy Stewart did anything as Rupert – his performance is phenomenal!) and in complete horror at the extraordinarycensorship that the film was subject to!

“The deviation from Hamilton’s originalis masterful in a way only Hitchcock is, and the choice to set it in post-WW2America is also a stroke of total genius, but it does, at least in my opinionremove some of the most unique and interesting qualities of the original.”

When did you last attend a dinner party?

“For my friend Grace’s birthday a few months ago. It was so much fun, we dressed up in formal clothes and had a little boogie afterwards as well!”

Who would be your ideal guests at a dinner party and why?

“This is so tough! I would have to say Oscar Wilde as he was the subject of my dissertation at undergrad and I would honestly love to be the butt of some of his quips. My fiancé Peter Hopwood (who plays Raglan in the show!) because I feel like I always need a wingman to back me up in dinner party-discussion and he certainly knows me best!

Peter Hopwood: Ideal dinner party guest, fiancé and Rope cast member. Picture: Ella Tomlin

I would also love Mary Wollstonecraft [18th century British writer, philosopher and advocate of women’s rights] to be there just because I feel like she would be so interesting to chat with about philosophy and womanhood.

“I would invite Dolly Parton because she’s just the greatest and my complete idol. I would bring Jack [co-artistic director Jack Mackay] as a scribe, so I could remember what we chatted about. Finally, I think I would invite Samuel Beckett, just to ask him what on earth was he thinking when he wrote his televised play Quad.”

What makes a good dinner party?

“A good host. Unfortunately for the characters in Rope…

“Also some gentle jazz music in the background is a must; it just feels too awkward otherwise!”

Katie Leckey as Jennet Marlin in York Theatre Royal’s 2023 community play, Sovereign, at King’s Manor, Exhibition Square, York. Picture: James Drury

You participated in York Theatre Royal’s community play, Sovereign, at King’s Manor last summer. In a cast of thousands (!), who did you play?

“I played Jennet Marlin (spoiler alert: she was a baddie!) – and what a great time I had. Playing her was a little bit out of my comfort zone but I grew to love her and her very sour face! The people I met as part of it was definitely the highlight. I also LOVED the costume; it made me feel like a real princess – and as a person who usually plays fools this was a unique occasion!”

What comes next for you and Griffonage Theatre?

“Oh, now that would be telling… but since you’ve pulled my leg – personally I’m going to finish my masters in September and start looking for jobs in the industry and I’m also hoping to get married in the winter!

“Griffonage are making our return to Theatre@41 in July this year, and we can’t WAIT to reveal what we’re up to!”

Griffonage Theatre in Rope, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, February 21 to 24, 7.30pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on Lumas Winds, BMS York Concerts, 5/1/24

Lumas Winds: First BMS York concert of 2024

BMS York presents Lumas Winds, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, January 5

LUMAS Winds opened their programme with a confident performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture. There are no hiding places in this music; technique is very much on the line and the crisply articulated playing throughout was both brave as well as admirable. Enjoyable too.

David Matthews’ Three Woodwind Studies, a set of personal, intimate portraits, was a delight. A Song For Emma (solo flute), with its charming melodic ebb and flow, was beautifully judged by Beth Stone.

Chris Vettraino’s performance of A Birthday Song (oboe) was both haunting and hypnotic. A Study For Sam (solo clarinet) was a first performance and proved to be a quirky, fun-filled gem.

Mozart’s Divertimento in F is an early work written in 1775. To be sure, it is more of a window into what was to come, but impressive nonetheless. The writing was full of confidence with each instrument given a share of the spoils. The playing was wonderful, the balance impeccable.

Sally Beamish’s The Naming Of Birds proved to be an evocative set of character pieces; very imaginative and quite unlike anything I have heard before. Each of these five demanding movements had five soloists evoking the call of each bird – partridge (horn), lapwing (oboe) and so forth.

I did find the actual live recorded introductions a tad contrived and frankly unnecessary, but it was a very engaging work and very well performed. However, not for the first time when listening to Ms Beamish’s music, the work left me impressed rather than moved.

Actually, I felt the same about Malcom Arnold’s Three Shanties. Impressive performances, impressive writing but …well, it put a smile on my face. Sally Beamish’s arrangement of Mozart’s Adagio for Glass Harmonica was an entirely musical affair. The sound was so seductive with the cor anglais replacing the oboe “to give a warm, dark quality to the quintet”. Which it did. How inspired.

Unlike Anton Reicha’s Two Andantes and an Adagio. The music was pretty forgettable, in fact I’ve forgotten it already, but the performance certainly wasn’t. Delightful.

Lumas Winds ended this splendid concert with the best work in the programme – apart from the Mozart, obviously – in Elizabeth Maconchy’s terrific Wind Quintet. It was so well written by a composer so clearly still at the top of their game. She was in her mid-seventies.

An opening Allegro of quirky urgency and unsettling metrical changes; the poco Lento more expressive, weaving contrapuntal lines underpinned by a dotted rhythm throughout; the third movement, Vivo, with a bit of a musical spat between clarinet and bassoon; the Andante opening with a short clarinet and horn duo, inviting in the other instruments to the party and the closing Rondo with each soloist having their say and the cute snap ending.

The players were at one with the technical and musical demands. The performance was illuminating.

Review by Steve Crowther

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on University of York Choir & Baroque Ensemble, Central Hall, December 16

Sarah Latto: Guest-conductiing 250 singers

IT was a good idea to schedule two Baroque Magnificats side by side in a single Christmas programme. What was arguably less sensible was to sing them in reverse chronological order.

The large choir was joined by the chamber choir The 24, bringing its numbers up to 250, all guest-conducted by Sarah Latto.

The history of Bach’s Magnificat is not altogether simple. This Christmas marks the 300th anniversary of the premiere of his first Magnificat, which was in E flat major. Over the following three years, he revised it, cutting out its four Christmas texts so that it could be used throughout the year and transposing it into the key of D major.

That is the version normally heard. What was given here was indeed “inspired by the early version” but in the later key. So we heard it with the Christmas bonuses.

It spearheaded the evening. In the opening chorus, the Baroque Ensemble, numbering some two dozen, was immediately right on its toes. The choir took longer to find focus. In the first interpolation, ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’ (From Heaven Above), the chorale melody in the sopranos needed greater prominence.

But there was a crisp attack into ‘Omnes generationes’ and thereafter the choir was fully focused: the ending of ‘Fecit Potentiam’ was superbly triumphal and the final Gloria equally imposing.

It was entirely understandable that soloists from within the choir (all members of The 24) were used, exactly as Bach would have done. But in this dry acoustic, which is so unreceptive to solo voices, it worked only intermittently.

Only one, the soprano Molly O’Toole, had the consistent resonance to surmount this difficulty; the baritone Will Parsons ran her a close second. Both, incidentally, sang their arias by heart. All of the others, equally youthful, were never less than competent, but lacked the projection required.

The orchestra contributed strong rhythmic backing, with first-class solo work from flutes and oboes. The portative organ, however, was underpowered against these forces and the harpsichord virtually inaudible.

The ‘other’ Magnificat was by the little-known Milanese nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. Written in the year of Bach’s birth, 1650, it inevitably suffered by being heard in the wake of his work rather than beforehand. But it proved an engaging work, for double choir, full of imaginative metrical changes closely linked to the text, even if its harmonic palette was limited. The 24 relished its antiphonal effects.

A Sinfonia pastorale – defined as for the Christmas season by its closing movement – was led from the violin with considerable panache by Asuka Sumi, one of the Baroque Ensemble’s co-directors (the other is cellist Rachel Gray, also present here).

Thereafter we enjoyed three Michael Praetorius settings of Christmas carols, with orchestral accompaniment. Finally, Gruber’s Silent Night, to an American translation, invited audience participation.

It made for a second half that was rather less exciting than Bach’s Magnificat had been. Nevertheless, Latto had conducted decisively, mouthing all the words as choral conductors are wont to do, but achieving excellent results and infusing the choir with enthusiasm.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Daniel Lebhardt, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, York

Daniel Lebhardt: “Particular empathy with Bartók”

British Music Society of York: Daniel Lebhardt, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, December 1

FEW pianists are able successfully to combine both accompaniment and solo work. But less than a week after he had appeared in a supporting role in Helmsley, Daniel Lebhardt was back in Yorkshire for this solo recital as part of the British Music Society of York’s 102nd season.

He opened with four ballades by Brahms, but thereafter interleaved Scriabin and Bartók with three Ligeti preludes. The ballades are a product of the composer’s early twenties and grouped in two pairs, the minor and major keys of D and B; they are mainly in three-part song form.

Lebhardt played them lovingly, concentrating on their melodies and keeping accompanimental figures in the background. Nowhere was this more successful than in the last, which was beautifully sustained.

We were to hear little of this approach in the rest of the programme. Ligeti’s 18 preludes are nowadays becoming de rigueur in piano recitals (two days earlier Danny Driver had included some here).

They are frequently volatile, often fast-moving, and a supreme test of virtuosity. Lebhardt was unlucky with No 6, Autumn In Warsaw, where he had a memory lapse that a re-start could not surmount, although we had sensed the falling leaves well enough. The prestissimo ending of No 15, White On White, given later, was thrilling.

The audience stayed on his side and he came back even more determined. So much so that he took out his anger on the ‘Drammatico’ opening of Scriabin’s Third Sonata, with exceptionally strong accents.

But he still managed to convey its ebb and flow. He had regained composure by the third, slow movement, which was gentle, bordering on sentimental. Fire was to return with a vengeance in the finale; it was to become a chorale by the end. He also made strong contrasts between high and low registers in Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme.

Born in Hungary, but now based in this country, Lebhardt showed a particular empathy with Bartók. The three Studies were wonderfully crisp; they must have acted as stimulants for Ligeti. The first was a whirlwind of close harmony, while in the second he brought out the theme with great clarity in the left hand. There was not much evidence of the ‘Rubato’ the composer marked in the third, but it was neatly structured nonetheless.

Bartók’s ‘Out Of Doors’ suite (Szabadban) had a special ring of truth. Lebhardt found the humour in ‘Musettes’ (although it needed to be a touch lighter), and ‘The Night’s Music’ was appropriately eerie.

‘The chase’ was highly percussive and riddled with cross-accents, in true Allegro Barbaro vein. Indeed, if there were a quibble about the second half, it would be that too much of the music was percussive, allowing the pianist’s lyricism little rein. But his virtuosity – with the one exception – was never in doubt.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Danny Driver, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, November 29

Danny Driver: “Did not hold back from giving it the full tour-de-force treatment”

IT was testament to his versatility that no fewer than ten different composers featured in Danny Driver’s piano recital.

A first half concentrating on music for evening and night centred on Beethoven and Schumann. Thereafter music of the last 50 years included several living composers, though one suspects this was more challenging for him than for his audience.

Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, Op 27 No 1 in C sharp minor, was ushered in by the gentle lilt of Schumann’s Des Abends, its unsettled accompaniment suggesting that all was not quite well with the composer’s evening.

The Beethoven was allowed to speak for itself, its opening melody strongly outlined, while menace remained in the dotted rhythms of the left hand. In a controlled scherzo, he neatly differentiated the two halves of the opening phrase – so important for what follows – into legato (first four notes) and staccato (the remaining four). Clarity was the watchword here.

So too in the finale, which was properly agitato and taken at a tremendous lick. Beethoven’s anger here was never in doubt and Driver did not hold back from giving it the full tour-de-force treatment, with heavily percussive accents like rifle shots.

Danny Driver: Virtuosity in a daring programme. Picture: Kaupo Kikkas

In contrast, Schumann’s ‘Ghost’ Variations remained intimate (‘innig’ as he marks the theme), reflecting a moment of rare calm at a time when the composer’s mental health was precarious. There was a pleasing flow to the melody. Even in the minor key variation (the fourth), we were kept in touch with the theme by its rhythm.

After a brief journey with Debussy to the swaying dances of a Grenada evening came total change in Scriabin’s ‘Black Mass’ Sonata, No 9, which bubbled up repeatedly like a witches’ cauldron. Driver perfectly reflected the score’s volatility, almost a bacchanalian orgy, which died with exhaustion in the closing bars.

After the interval we were on much newer ground. Five Ligeti Études acted as template for a series of 21st century reactions in very similar vein. With few exceptions, the later versions were pale reflections of the original.

All but two used rapid staccato figures, hovering much of the time in the very upper reaches of the keyboard with minimalist intent. At least Martin Suckling’s Orrery (with the composer present) had a distinctive bell-like underlay and grew in intensity, thereby engaging the attention.

One could only marvel at Driver’s virtuosity and wonder how he was able to memorise such similar works. It was a daring programme, but it needed something meatier at the centre of its second half.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on The 24, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, November 22

Conductor Sarah Latto

THE core of this wonderfully programmed concert was the sensuous, perhaps even erotic text of the Song Of Solomon.

The poem celebrates love in an invitational courtship: two lovers singing to each other, desiring each other. They are in harmony in a God-free narrative that celebrates humanity.

This was particularly striking in Raffaella Aleotti’s setting of Ergo flos campi where the two lovers take the form of two unequal choirs. The energetic antiphonal exchanges were beautifully delivered by the singers.

The24’s concert opened with Flemish composer Clemens non Papa’s setting of the same text. This was a refined, controlled performance where the weaving of the seven-part setting was delightful. The balance was impeccably judged.

I was going to mention the striking high versus low setting of the ‘lily between thorns’, but as it was highlighted in the programme notes I’ve decided not to bother. I really enjoyed the ebb and flow of Hildegard of Bingen’s Flos Campi. The musical experience was undoubtedly spiritual.

James MacMillan’s setting of Robert Burns’ The Gallant Weaver was a secular musical match made in heaven. The work is brimming with the distinctive influence of Scottish folk music – the rich ornamental inflections or decoration was delightfully executed, as well as Gaelic Psalmody.

The overall effect was generally peaceful; the voicing was inspired with triple soprano divisions and gentle hanging dissonances that were exquisite. The only issue I had was the exposed bass and tenor setting of the words ‘the gallant weaver’, which jarred. Sir James, I suspect, not the choir.

The 24: “Radiating warmth and joy”

I personally find Morrissey a charmless, narcissistic individual, but there is no doubting his ability as a songwriter and performer. I really like The Smiths’ There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (written by him and guitarist Johnny Marr), and I found this arrangement by Sarah Latto and the performance itself quite sublime. It was so touching, tender and respectful.

There is much to admire in John Barber’s Song Of Songs (commissioned by The Sixteen); the intricate weaving of the musical lines, lovely ornamentation and music that rhythmically danced. But I failed to engage with the work. Not even the funky ostinato of Love Is As Strong As Death or the splendid singing in By Night could revitalise that movement’s blandness.

Unlike Judith Weir’s Vertue; a very fine performance of a very fine work. Weir’s music always shines brightly, and this was no exception. Alex Kyle made a guest appearance to conduct Schütz’ Ego Dormio; the direction was assured and the performance highly rewarding.

Kerry Andrew’s CoMa Blues was a welcome change of musical gear. The composer has forged her own clearly distinctive voice, and this short theatrical performance was spot-on.

One of the concert highlights was Victoria’s Trahe Me Post Te. It is such a delight to immerse oneself into this velvety chocolatey sound world of absolute luxury. Especially when the performance, under the inspirational direction of conductor Sarah Latto, is as polished as this.

The programme concluded with Philip Glass’s Quand Les Hommes Vivront d’Amour. This attractive work is a hymn to universal love and the responsibility that goes with it, a somewhat timely message needed right here and right now.

It had all the hallmarks of Glass’s radical, and it is indeed radical, style: effective, almost hypnotically driven motor rhythms, repetitive patterns, breathing dynamic phrasing. The performance radiated warmth and joy, a great way to sign off, to say goodnight.

Review by Steve Crowther

REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on University of York Symphony Orchestra, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, November 25

John Stringer conducting the University of York Symphony Orchestra on November 25

THE first thing to say about this ambitious concert was that it was played to a packed auditorium. In these difficult times this is no small achievement and great credit to the University Symphony Orchestra and conductor John Stringer, who have deservedly generated such a trusted following.

I have never heard Kaija Saariaho’s Lumière et Pesanteur in a live performance. To be honest I found listening to the work slightly unsettling. It was like swimming submerged in a spooky, murky musical lagoon.

The very effective soundscape was made from light, translucent chords. A delicate motif moved from trumpet to flute. There emerged loud tutti, trumpet and brass but these outbursts were always sucked back into the murky depths. As I said, unsettling.

Not all the exposed playing was always on the money, a little pitch unsure, perhaps lacking a little match practice. But there was no doubting the originality of the score and the performance caught the atmospheric sound world to good effect.

And so, from one Finnish great to an even greater one, Jean Sibelius. En Saga is also a powerful, descriptive tone poem. The work opens with a mysterious, distinctive mood or sheen created by glistening string playing. Again, the solo and exposed instrumental groupings seemed to lack authority and confidence.

This changed with the dramatic increase in tempo and the playing was more self-assured and enjoyable. The work is now brimming with instrumental folk-inspired dances, heroic calls on the horn. The climax of the four horns playing their notes chiuso (muted by hand), produced a particularly metallic, brassy effect.

Following some strong viola solo playing (Anna Thompson), conductor John Stringer drove the players on to a sustained orchestral climax dominated by brass fanfares. Very effective. This couldn’t last and a splendid Pip Tall on clarinet guided us toward a poignant, tranquil close.

If some of the playing in the first half seemed, I suspect, a little under rehearsed, this was certainly not the case in the second half with a terrific performance of Shostakovich’s symphonic last will and musical testament, the exceptional Symphony No. 15.

Whereas his symphonies are usually driven by external events and politics, here the drama is very much internalised. To be sure, there is fun to be had, not least in the William Tell quotations. Or is there?

The symphony, the mightiest of abstract musical forms, opens with a solo glockenspiel. It is certainly a surprise and, in this context, a dramatic one. This is followed by a seemingly carefree chirpy flute solo and then a slightly odd bassoon melody, some strange, slightly displaced string passages, familiar rhythmic echoes in the brass and then an even stranger hello from the trumpets quoting from Rossini’s William Tell overture.

The playing convincingly recreated a kind of black musical playground, or possibly fairground, where the appearance of Petrushka’s ghost wouldn’t have been that far-fetched. But if this quirky, surreal quality suggesting frivolity is a musical joke, the punchline is manifest in the darkest recesses of the following slow movement.

The University Symphony Orchestra delivered a persuasive, bleak account. It opens with a noble brass chorale ushering in a truly heartfelt cello solo; a pair of solo flutes (nicely played by Persephone Alloway and Immy McPhun) introduce the historical dotted funeral motif, with a solo trombone taking us to loud fortissimo climax.

Fine bassoon playing leads to the start of the Allegretto third movement. I think that this is meant to be played without a break, but anyhow, mercifully there was one, and I needed it. Having said that, this scherzando offers little respite as the chilling woodblock motif introduces a solo double bass theme accompanied by confident celesta playing by Joel Edmondson.

A macabre clarinet solo takes to a unsettling violin solo arriving at the movement’s closing Desolation Row. The final Adagio is brimming with quotations: the fate motif from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nieberlung and Tristan und Isolde. There are echoes of Glinka’s Do Not Tempt Me Needlessly. It is left to the celesta to take us to the final curtain restating the symphony’s opening motif.

To quote music journalist Tom Service: “The final sounds of Shostakovich’s symphonic canon are impassive, intimate, and empty. They’re among the most spine-tingling and chilling sounds in orchestral music.”

John Stringer and the University Symphony Orchestra delivered an emotional rollercoaster of the bleakest of musical journeys. They, and especially their fine soloists – Persephone Alloway (flute), Isaac McAreavey (bassoon), Mari McGregor (cello), Sam Banks (trombone), George Roberts (double bass) and Vlad Turapov (violin) – should be very proud.

Review by Steve Crowther

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on London Bridge Trio, British Music Society of York

London Bridge Trio: violinist Ben Hancox, pianist Daniel Tong and cellist Cara Berridge

British Music Society of York: London Bridge Trio, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, November 10

IT came as a surprise to find that the London Bridge Trio, renowned for its championing of English composers, is already into its third decade.

Its appearance for the British Music Society of York contained no English music, but a tasty combination of early Beethoven and late Fauré, with Schumann’s First Piano Trio for finale.

Beethoven’s first three trios – his first official opus – were his calling card as he summoned up the courage to journey to Vienna from his birthplace in Bonn at the age of 21. They did the trick and opened many doors for him.

Op 1 No 2 in D, full of variety, speaks of an imagination off the leash for the first time. There was at once clarity and spaciousness in the ensemble’s approach, a feel for the structure without obvious signposting.

The slow movement was measured, as the trio relished its improvisatory structure, while the scherzo with its offbeat accents made a lively contrast, calmed down only in its closing six-bar calando (simultaneous decrease in sound and speed). The mood of suppressed excitement in the finale burst into the open in the closing bars.

Fauré’s only piano trio, by contrast, was the work of a 78-year-old. Its ebb and flow was remarkably cogent here, as the ensemble – launched by the cello’s theme – sustained a steady momentum throughout the opening allegro.

The slow movement was meditative, its tempo leisurely, but eventually generating warmth from the central bleakness. The finale was the antithesis of this, using its syncopation and cross accents to build excitement.

Schumann’s Op 63 in D minor, the same key as the Fauré, got off to a boisterous start, with its dotted main motif especially forceful. Its jack-in-the-box scherzo was scarcely less emphatic, bursting with surprises, although the trio was a good deal smoother.

The elegiac violin opening to the slow movement, picked up by the cello, was gently touching. But its moodiness was at once dispelled by the sunshine of the finale, now in the major key, and the final acceleration was exhilarating.

The London Bridge is a well-balanced ensemble, its pianist Daniel Tong never dominating. It was a privilege to share its many insights.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Fleur Barron & Christopher Glynn, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York

Mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron: Picture: Victoria Cadisch

CHRISTOPHER Glynn, known to most in this area as artistic director of the Ryedale Festival, has an uncanny knack of talent-spotting musicians with great futures ahead of them and bringing them not only to Ryedale, but also to University of York’s music department.

His latest find, already an established star on both sides of the Atlantic, is the mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron. Her programme was a combination of German – mainly Brahms – lieder alongside Spanish canciónes, with a handful of Chinese folksongs for good measure.

Homecoming was the theme of the evening, with Brahms’ three settings of poems by Klaus Growth on Heimweh (Homesickness) at the start, a poet who hailed from the same area as the composer’s family. She tapped into the nostalgia theme best in the second song, about wanting to find the sweet road back to childhood.

Folksong was more important to Brahms than any other lieder composer and seven of his folk arrangements here proved the point. The justly famous Vergebliches Ständchen (Vain Serenade) found Barron in coquettish vein, which suited the lighter side of her flexible tone. So too did Feinstliebchen…(Sweetheart, You Mustn’t Go Barefoot), where she handled the punch-lines adroitly.

Equally impressive here was Glynn’s agile treatment of the accompaniments, some of which are unusually intricate. Berg’s Four Songs, Op 2, written in his mid-twenties (1909-10), range neatly from the ultimate lullaby of Schlafen, Schlafen (Sleep, Sleep) to Warm die Lüfte’ (Warm The Breezes) – his first piece of atonal writing, and the only one of the four songs not about sleep. Both performers enjoyed breaking out into its fiery climax after their earlier restraint. Its ending was also deeply felt.

Not that her German was less than competent, but there was the feeling that Barron was much more comfortable, both with the language and the style, in her two Spanish cycles; they suited her outgoing personality.

The Five Negro Songs of the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge were inspired by Marian Anderson’s singing of spirituals in Barcelona during the 1930s, but are also strongly overlaid by Cuban influences and the effects of colonialism. Although better known in their orchestral versions, it was good to hear them with piano alone.

The catchy lilt of Habanera Rhythm was deeply Spanish, although the implied violence of Chévere (The Dandy) needed darker tone. In the famous Canción de Cuna (Lullaby), Barron found a touching sadness in the little black boy’s innocent sleep.  Her witty singing and Glynn’s dancing piano made the final Canto negro a high-spirited treat.

Hard to summarise the Chinese songs, whose Western-style accompaniments made them sound almost Scottish. Suffice to say, a flower drum song drew laughter and applause and later several Chinese students in the hall nodded approval.

Both performers clearly revelled in the veritable mosaic of Spanishness that makes up Falla’s Siete Populares Canciónes. Barron let her hair down here, showing real flair as she dived into chest tone more than once. Glynn’s rapid staccato in the Murcian seguidilla and the changing tempos of Jota, an Aragonese dance-song, were especially memorable.

We had needed a touch more of this panache earlier in the evening from Barron, but her genuine mezzo remains a powerful instrument. I hope we shall hear her here again soon.

Review by Martin Dreyer, November 8

REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on The Chimera Ensemble, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, November 17

The Chimera Ensemble performing at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall. Picture: Steve Crowther

GYOGY Kurtág’s Játékok piano pieces formed the main part of this innovative programme, with works by Howard Skempton and Paige Halliwell threaded in between the four groupings and closing with Michael Nyman.

This is the first time I have heard the Játékok pieces live, and they were a revelation. The only real influence I could discern was certainly not Beethoven, nor indeed Bartok, but Webern. In truth they were utterly original.

Each miniature beautifully crafted, each a portrait, a homage to his friends, fellow artistic travellers – Ligeti, Christian Wolff, a nod to Bach and, in the touching Hommage á Kurtág Márta, his wife with whom he played the piano duets.

All four groups were played by different pianists: Brinsley Morrison, Sam Goodhead, Katie Laing and Imogen Weedon & Charlotte Brettell (duets from Book VIII). Their care, the quality of touch, the precision and understanding of these tiny, intricate, aphoristic gems was a delight; polished and professional.

Játékok means games in Hungarian. Indeed, Kurtág said: “The idea of composing Játékok was suggested by children playing spontaneously, children for whom the piano still means a toy.” And this was what the performances created, that sense of innocent wonderment and discovery. 

The Chimera Ensemble was conducted by John Stringer, always a good thing. His precision and quiet authority ensured refinement and clarity in the three dovetailed works.

Howard Skempton’s Sirens (Version 1 and Versions 2 & 3) came across like musical paintings, gentle landscapes of instrumental colour created by simple chords oscillating between the different instrumental groups.

Now I do like Howard’s music, and I like the guy himself. I also like that these pieces were written for CoMA, a contemporary music organisation whose aims and values I share. However, although the performances were genuinely relaxing and engaging, the experience for me at least, was a little underwhelming.

Indeed, I initially thought the second Chimera contribution was also by Skempton – the lights being dimmed for, presumably, a performance-enhanced experience also meant it was difficult to see the actual programme notes – and a more enjoyable one too.

I’d actually written “that’s more like it, Howard” in my notes, only to discover it was a piece called Flux by Paige Halliwell – and a good one too. The Chimera Ensemble delivered its monolithic sound world to great effect where melodic shapes emerged, sometimes for their own sake and sometimes as part of a short musical conversation. Good performance, good piece.

Now to the Nyman, a composer whose music always gives me genuine foot-tapping, pulsating joy. I love the immediacy, intelligence and the physicality of his works. Not here, however. Despite the remarkably disciplined six-piano performance, the velvety textures and quiet jazzy influences, this did not work for me. I found the piece and musical experience a spectacularly self-indulgent, utterly tedious waste of time. I’ll get my coat.

Review by Steve Crowther