Category Archives: Music

Review, Elin Grace, Bee Without Wings EP, by Gareth Williams

One of the most exciting talents coming through this year’s Forté project is surely 18-year-old Elin Grace. The singer-songwriter from Mid Wales has just released an EP of sheer brilliance. ‘Bee Without Wings’ may only be her debut release but it demonstrates a maturity far beyond her years. Lyrically complex, sonically fascinating, vocally mesmerising, the whole record is absorbing from start to finish. With touches of Kate Bush, Lily Allen, Rona Mac and Amy Wadge, along with her particular inspiration Laura Marling, it is generous with genre while maintaining a consistency of sound. Always serving the narrative, the music becomes an accurate representation of each song: the fragile piano on ‘Little Bit Delicate’, the rhythmic synth of ‘Breathe’, the music box sound underlying ‘Doll’. All touch on mental health in some way, whether it be anxiety, self-esteem or depression. All contrast the expected angst of their subject matter with a poise that is strangely comforting – sometimes soft and light; ironic and even comic – to make this an EP shot through with eccentricity. It is as if Elin Grace is wanting to hold a mirror up to her experience to reveal its peculiarity. She is an artist of genuine depth, unafraid to share moments of personal vulnerability and confident to deconstruct the false values of contemporary society. ‘Bee Without Wings’ is a consummate piece of music-making. Elin Grace has a very bright future ahead of her.

Reviewed by Gareth Williams

Review Will Pound & Jenn Butterworth, Stoller Hall, Manchester by James Ellis

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

It would be my last night in Manchester where I made the discovery of Will Pound and Jenn Butterworth. This folk duo are doing the rounds on tour and my love for them has grown thanks to this lovely concert they gave in the intimate Carole Nash Hall within Stoller Hall.

It is their mix of harmonica, vocals and guitar that make them so endearing. Be it folk proper, sea shanties or country songs, their talents shine forth. A smattering of feminist folk songs stood out, Jenn being cheeky and removing some problematic elements from others songs (a cautious decision I didn’t really mind) , yet still kept up the earthy, thrilling ride. Will was showing off the only bass harmonica in the world, whilst proving his money’s worth through fabulous playing. Jenn with lush vocals and stirring guitar playing, both musicians a wonderful mix, the delight of this Sunday night.

After viral success on Tik Tok, they seem to be reaching new heights thanks to new audiences. The whole thing just felt very accessible and had an easy going quality I often enjoy in the concert environment. I should see more folk events, if they are as good as this. It’s rare to find a duo who seem to really understand one another, their cheery personalities also on show. It is the spirit of the British Isles that lives in these two, along with the fire of European nations, since we were also treated to music from Spain and elsewhere. This of course, gave Will the chance to show off his diatonic accordion, a sweet and acute instrument known by different names in different lands.

These two gave me the spirit to say goodbye to Manchester and to head home to Wales.

Will Pound and Jenn Butterworth continue on tour around the UK till 21 November 2022.

WNO’s Migrations, a review by Eva Marloes

WNO Migrations The Mayflower WNO Chorus photo credit Craig Fuller
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

The new opera Migrations, developed by the Welsh National Opera (WNO), brings together disparates histories and issues to send an anti-racist message. The opera consists of six interlocking tableaux protesting racism, slavery, and violence to the natural world. These issues deserve to be told and dramatised, yet drama requires tension, emotions, and characters, which are wholly absent in this production.

Migrations is a pot pourri of protest banners without a trace of life. None of the librettists took the trouble to write a character with real emotions, pain and joy, hope and disappointment. Singers explain disparate histories and issues to the audience rather than tell a story. The message is right and timely, but an opera is not a protest march.

Migrations was conceived as part of the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the sailing of The Mayflower in 1620. This shows little understanding of the Pilgrims, who are here presented erroneously as oppressed people escaping persecutions. In reality, they were theocratic colonisers with little tolerance for each other never mind anybody else. The choir as Pilgrims singing ‘Freedom’ sits awkwardly with the overall anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-slavery message.

There are only two tableaux that stand out. One is Flight, Death or Fog, the story of Pero Jones, enslaved to the Pinney family in Bristol. Aubrey Allicock’s Pero has an impressive presence on stage which confers dignity and gravitas. The other is This is the Life! set in 1968 and depicting two Indian doctors coming to Britain to ‘fill the NHS skills gap,’ as they tell the audience. The Indian classical music and flamboyant Bollywood dance manage to lift the spirits.

WNO Migrations This is the Life Natasha Agarwal Neera Jamal Andreas Jai Bollywood Ensemble photo credit Craig Fuller

Treaty Six by Sarah Woods depicts the plight of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in today’s Canada trying to stop a pipeline going through their land. The English Lesson features a group of refugees reflecting on who they were at home and their status as refugees in a new country. Eric Ngalle Charles’s Birds sees children as birds migrating and endangered by humans destroying the natural world. The music and the children’s singing lack the necessary sombre tone to convey the message.

On the whole, this mishmash is kept together competently by the singers, the always excellent choir, and orchestra conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren. The music too often resembles a second-rate musical, with the exception of the chorale and Jasdeep Singh Degun’s Indian classical music.

Review William Basinski & London Contemporary Orchestra, Barbican Centre by James Ellis 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

A return to London for William Basinski was just what I’ve needed. This American composer has made good old fashioned reel to reel tape as the basis of his craft. More specifically, the deterioration when the tape is compromised due to a varying combination of factors is his USP (chance, the age of the tech and temperature as examples). His art will be forever interlinked with the events of 9/11, as some attempt to salvage archival work occurred on that fateful day.  

Arriving on stage, Basinski was flaming, singing show tunes and unable to grasp he was performing at the Barbican. Starting with his Lamentations from 2020, he declared that “war is on the way”, as the now everywhere colours of the Ukraine flag flooded the stage. Even in this newer work, his tape addiction never stops. There were some exquisite moments here. Anyone not into minimalism and an equal amount of patience would struggle with his ideas. Though those who commit are treated to a fine ambient encounter. Some sample of a stunning female singer makes you crave the source. It remains very haunting, other exuberant moments fill the space with a somber joy, yearning regrets within others. He appears to still have the magic about him!

Two orchestral arrangements of his Disintegration Loops filled the second half. Basinski has shared the context of this piece and it’s relationship with 9/11 many times. The London Contemporary Orchestra took on these damaged pieces with benevolence for the listener. No. 3 of the loops is quite serene, a feeling of calm washes over you, as it continues to repeat and repeat. Conductor Robert Ames helps the statue like dynamic along, leading shortly after in the iconic No.1.1 of the loops. There is a slight change to the snippet of a melody which haunts the first loop (we assume it’s brass on the original). The brass here players keep the structure going, as the notes gradually go into the ether. The two percussionists relentlessly shone, keeping the subtlety on course, as the other musicians wrapped up. The addition of humming was a nice touch at the start and end, though mics would have gone a long way.      

All that was missing was Basinski’s video work which accompanies the loops. Still a fun, revelatory evening. 

Review Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita St David’s Hall by James Ellis

Photo Credit: Mark Allen
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

One of the fond memories of the brief window of live performance in 2020 was Catrin Finch with the Columbian band Cimarrón. Welsh harpist Catrin seems to hold the whole world in her hands, with a versatility in essentially any genre of music. Knowing her from classical circles, her time with Cimmarrón made for a sizzling and dazzling concert, something I haven’t forgotten in a hurry.

A duet with Seckou Keita from Senegal is another giant leap in taste and mileage. Keita, who plays the kora (a large string instrument made from a giant root vegetable) beams for most of the night, his vibrant energy on full display. Catrin, ever the wry talent, gave humour in speech and simply beautiful playing on her large harp. Together, Wales and Senegal does not seem that far apart, the break down of musical cultures dropping with a huge reverb, its sound a towering influence over the night.

I’ll confess the music here is on a more chilled level, a breezy ambience that never lets up. I found myself craving something with more of a meaty bite, though the eloquence of both players never wained. The kora is a rather subtle instrument, somewhere between a harp, guitar and the strings of a piano. They usually played in harmony, each instrument clear during these moments.

Seckou also shared insights from his country, the idea of the children’s rite of a “standing stick” was amazing. A frustrating moment came later when his mic fell and not a single technician came to assist him. Along with Catrin’s deadpan, they made quite a comedy double, as well as musical bed fellows. The unending, shameless amount of plugs to their new CD started to get absurd as the night went on.

We really should place bets for where Catrin goes globally and who she plays with next. Her journey remains quite the adventure.

Review, Paco Peña – Solera, Sadler’s Wells, By Hannah Goslin

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

If you have never seen Flamenco dance, they you are surely missing out. A mixture of intense, fast paced and yet graceful movement takes your breath away and yet you feel the intensity in your own blood.

Paco Peña, one of the most formidable of Flamenco guitarists and composers, rejoins with director Jude Kelly, to bring a production comparing and contrasting young and mature performers, both musically and physically. It showcases the traditional dance, and how it drips down through generations, bringing new life to the old dance style.

The first half is actually quite the surprise. In their comfies, skivvies, whatever you call them, we feel as if we have walked into a Spanish bar; the ones you see in tiny Spanish towns or slightly more glamourised on TV and film, where the older musicians are tinkering their beautiful music on the guitar, there’s a make shift drum set, and the vocalising of the locals who have impeccable singing voices. Then, while clearly not ad hoc in this case, the local Flamenco dancers jump into the middle and perform with what they feel in the soul and through their veins.

The staging is minimal – it looks as if we have stumbled on the backstage of a set. This all together is super effective and, despite being in such a large Theatre, feels intimate. However, the novelty unfortunately begins to wear off, especially when the tempo of all the songs chosen for this section have the same slow beat; it soon becomes hard to pay attention to and keep interest. While the dancing is of course extraordinary, the music beautiful, it just wasn’t enough to keep my attention going.

The second half became more of a theatrical production – matching costumes, theatrical lights highlighting pockets of the stage with either a dancer or musician. The same Flamenco style of Spanish guitar and improvised and impressive vocals, this second half is very different – the tempo is interchangeable, from something very poised and slow to fast paced and fun. While I’m sure the theatrical elements added in this half help with its impression, the mixture of tempos and approaches to the dance kept us more on our toes and waiting for the next act.

Paco Peña – Solera is a great introduction to Flamenco. To see where it comes from in tradition to the more heightened modernity. It unfortunately needs a little shake up with the dances and music they put next to one another.

WNO’s Don Giovanni – Review by Eva Marloes

WNO Don Giovanni Duncan Rock Don Giovanni photo credit Bill Cooper
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

The WNO offers an accomplished production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni that never quite takes off. Don Giovanni is a womanizer who seduces and even rapes women. He is condemned by the community and unrepentant is brought down to hell. Mozart’s dramma giocoso alternates playful elements with tragedy. The able cast seeks to balance the two but the perhaps confusing direction leads them astray taking the tension away. This is exacerbated by the heavy and lugubrious art design throughout the show that leaves no room for playfulness.

Joshua Bloom performs well as Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant. However, he expresses a little too much reprobation in singing ‘In Spagna son gia’ 1003’ leaving out the ridiculing of Don Giovanni. In contrast, Meeta Raval plays Donna Elvira, one of the victims of Don Giovanni, with a little too much humour. Donna Elvira feels love and hatred for Don Giovanni. Although Raval sings beautifully and with conviction, the confusing stage directions bring about a too abrupt turn to tragedy leaving out the inherent tension within Donna Elvira. At the end, when she declares she will confine herself to a convent, the audience laughed. Donna Elvira’s suffering is being denied.

Linda Richardson, as Donna Anna, steals the show with a powerful and dramatic voice. There is no ambivalence in Donna Anna who is the victim of an attempted rape by Don Giovanni and whose father, the Commendatore (James Platt), is killed by Don Giovanni as he runs away. Duncan Rock, as Don Giovanni, gives a solid performance, but not a powerful one. Harriet Eyley shines as Zerlina, who is almost seduced by Don Giovanni on her wedding day. Her husband Masetto is played with vigour by James Atkinson, who offers an impressive performance. Don Ottavio, fiance of Donna Anna, is played by Kenneth Tarver whose agile voice is impressive though perhaps lacking in robustness.

WNO Don Giovanni Meeta Raval Donna Elvira Duncan Rock Don Giovanni photo credit Bill Cooper 

On the whole, the performance lacks energy and subtlety. The usually excellent WNO’s orchestra fails to do justice to Mozart Mozart’s polyphonic music and keeping the pace slow. This production fails to bring out that alternation between playful and dramatic. Don Giovanni finds his death inviting to dinner the statue of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father who he killed at the beginning. It is rather confusing to see the statue on stage from the very beginning, even before the Commendatore is killed.

The WNO assembles a good cast and can usually rely on a strong orchestra and excellent choirs. Their performances are too often let down by the art production and direction, often based on a previous production. In this case, the original direction was by John Caird. This makes originality and innovation impossible.

Review Taro, St David’s Hall By James Ellis

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) 

Percussion. Perhaps my favourite instruments and part of the orchestra. With students from the Royal Welsh College, dubbed Taro, they presented an exhilarating bend of music for the sleepy lunchtime slot at St David’s Hall.

Steve Reich is the grand old master of the minimalists, some might feel his looping effects make for a one trick pony. His ideas have not processed a lot of over the decades. Through this, the music is always delightful and unique. The musicians here started off with the first movement of his Mallet Quartet, which features a smashing melodic line, the sheen of marimbas creating a landscape of joy. With his Six Marimbas, we got the same themes and little variations. Turns out the students have this piece as their music exam the day after the concert.

Though they might lack the machine like drill of Colin Currie and his ensemble, they impress, this never being easy music to take lightly. Focus and endurance are the name of the game…
Ivan Trevino and his 2+1 continued a minimalist exercises, in a piece feeling quite sincere and formulated. The stand out piece of the concert has to go to Trio Per Uni by Nebosha Zivkovitch. With three of the players sharing a bass drum and a smattering of bongos and metallic bowls. Inspired by the pounding nature of Japanese Taiko drumming, this alumni composer has written a piece that should see a fair amount of popularity, such is its appeal. I found it stirring and easily accessable, the slamming wall of sound never ending, with the occasional shout from the three guys playing. Sensational.

A light, bright Ravel arrangement of his Alborada del Gracioso followed by Safri Duo. I’ll take or leave this French composer, who usually relied on a lot of pith in his musical output. With a shared marimba for two players, the piano work gets even more silly, with the flurry of high notes and as an adolescent guide to daydreaming. Nice stuff, if a little saccharine. A first year student at RWC, Elaina Charalambous and her Kinesthetic had a lovely feel to it. The plodding bars for ten percussionists had sometimes absurd moments of tutti, really giving the work a wink and a whistle to the listener. Certainly another young composer of note. 

Review, Shades of Ham, Rona Mac, by Gareth Williams

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Rona Mac describes the pink cover of her latest EP ‘Shades of Ham’ as a dichotomy. It is a colour, she says, that is both “fierce, bold and strong as well as delicate, floral and soft”. It seems a particularly fitting description for an artist who finds strength in vulnerability. But it also captures something of the sharp contrasts that imbue this record. The Welsh singer-songwriter is perfectly capable of packing a punch one minute and tenderly caressing the next. Not only is she inspired by the Pembrokeshire landscape in which she lives, but the rugged cliffs and sloping green fields seem to represent her music too.

Opening track ‘Something Good’ oozes intimacy. There is something about those ambling guitar loops and sauntering vocals, carried over from her debut album ‘Sheelah’, that transfix, and traverse the line between light and shade that defines her work. Unvarnished truth-telling mixes with splashes of colour that speak of hope, not only on a personal level but a political one too. ‘Polidics’ is a well-versed dig at those in power. The pounding beats as Rona speaks of the privileged “men in jackets sit[ting] importantly… pouring port in front of me” contribute to a deeply-held frustration at the way the country is currently run. Add into the mix a damning critique of consumerism, with its “money wrapped in lights so take it”, and you get a sense of the raw honesty and unbounded personality of this quietly-countercultural artist.

‘Polidics’ does not remain in a state of anger. Rather, it is a song of two halves, the second of which moves on “to where they cannot find me”, amidst “the flowers and the grasses”, from which “we’ll rise, a bunch of honest creatures fill the skies”. Combined with a more free-flowing alt-pop sound, it makes for a track that is ultimately casting toward a better, brighter vision of the world. On a more practical level, it also prepares the way for the softer sound of ‘The Road to Your House’. Here, the usual shimmering soundscape is stilled by the clarity of the acoustic guitar. Suddenly, we are witness to a beautifully-told story through folk music that feels miles away from the frustration of a few minutes ago. Sadness and regret still seep into its reflection but there is also a sprightliness contained within. The guitar solo in the middle echoes such sentiment, and is easy to get lost in. ‘Smoke’ has a similar ruminating quality. It reminds me a lot of Georgia Ruth’s album ‘Mai’: soothing and affecting; complex, even in its simplicity.

*contains strong language

Final track ‘Paper’ has the same two-toned substance as ‘Polidics’. On the one hand a love-letter, on the other a seething criticism, it mixes alt-pop beats with acoustic reflection padded with the sound of waves. Similar to ‘Carageen’ by Jodie Marie, it suggests that Rona Mac’s Pembrokeshire location offers a kind of grounding, a place to which she escapes as well as from where she writes her songs. It certainly seems to have offered her the freedom to not be bound by conventions. ‘Shades of Ham’ continues to showcase this genre-fusing approach. It is a record that is undeniably Rona Mac. May she never compromise on that.

Follow Rona Mac on Instagram/Twitter @RonaMac_Music

Reviewed by
Gareth Williams

Review Andrei Kymach & Llŷr Williams, St David’s Hall by James Ellis

Photo Credit: Alexander Andryushchenko
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Those pesky storms would keep me from Don Giovanni with Welsh National Opera the past weekend. Though for now I missed the damnation, Andrei Kymach gave up time from the show for a recital at St David’s. Cardiff Singer regulars will know he won back in 2019, a long time ago in the grander scheme of things.

We are living in heightened times. Ukrainian born Andrei offered up a fine conveyor belt of native songs. We need to hear things like this at the moment, with war feeling imminent after two dower years, we’d rather forget in all honesty. These patriotic and joyful songs bleed out of Andrei, a well versed repertoire he will undoubtedly be singing more of in the near future. The songs of Schevchenko, Scheli and Liybomyr would be banned by the Tsars and early Soviet leaders, only ganging resurgence more recently. It is the conviction that Andrei brings to every word of each song that affirms his command as a baritone, filled with gusto and pride.

There is a rock star feel to Andrei’s look, his hair and beard trimmed and cut for his turn as the wicked Don down the bay. A headbanger of another sort, Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death ended this fine recital with a chilling air throughout. Here the singers details four scenes of lives ending, as Death emerges to claim his reward each time. Things start off particularly dark, with the death of a baby. Other songs sees the battlefield, a man lost in the snow and a knight (disguised as Death) lulling a sick maiden.

It’s Mussorgsky’s rollicking, compositional nature that makes these songs shine. Andrei is brilliant in execution, truly on top form, wallowing in the ironic, morbid mirror that permeates each bar. Llŷr Williams as accompanist has also excelled, glowing as he plays and never taken over the limelight to much from his partner. A lone piano stool next to Llŷr was intended for a page-turner, none such was needed as he swiped at the sheets, creasing them in each time within their plastic folder. Some three encores would indulge this loving Cardiff audience, who has seen this superb singer grow and grow.

We hope we can find peace at this time. Music will always be the answer.

Don Giovanni continues at the Wales Millennium Centre till 17 March 2022, then on tour.