Category Archives: Opera & classical

Review Bhekizizwe, Opera’r Ddraig, Chapter Arts Centre by James Ellis

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

From it’s humble start, Opera’r Ddraig have risen upward to stage familiar classics in spaces around Cardiff and on tour. Though with Bhekizizwe comes a much more diverse and contemporary scope for the company.

Dr Robert Fokkens from South Africa, now based at Cardiff Uni has composed the score and the libretto is penned by Mkhululi Mabija. We follow a young South African man Bhekizizwe Shange on his way to further education in both Pretoria and then London. With family, life and love interests adding to the story, he must find his way in the white mans world, proving himself as good as any of them. A partner of his in London would deliver a baby, much to the distain of the family of the girl, realising the child would be mixed race. 

The near eccentric nature of the music, is usual Fokkens territory, his recent piano premier at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival also proof of this. There was dischord, there was harmony, though most alive in the piercing moments of drama in the second half of the evening, dance club music and a pounding drum solo from Michael Hearty. I’ve yet to see a bow scrapped across a cymbal more times then here as well. I questioned how approachable the music would be, some in the audience declared this was their first opera. I dare say, it worked well and the interval was an added rest for all players involved. Fokkens also conducted every soberly, keeping the ensemble in a fine symmetry.

The story itself is quite bare, our lead boy seems to just knock about the places he is meant to go, perhaps the fact this is a monodrama with no other voices proves the static. With the upmost pride, the evening mostly belongs to baritone Themba Mvula. In the many dress-up moments for his teachers, family and maybe in-laws, he embodies them with swagger and humour. Mvula’s  voice is perfect in any register and he often excelled in soaring moments, even if the rowdy band might have drowned him out at times. There are some very touching moments and the bits of wit are well needed, the lists of things not to do in England was a highlight, dressing up with the buttoned up, dicky bow torso mannequin of his professor. He made the story more interesting then on face value and I was really quite taken with him. One to watch!  

At it’s heart the piece was about home, race and love. The quest for all these things in a world of hate and judgment.        

Review Sinfonia of London, St David’s Hall by James Ellis

Martin James Bartlett, Photo credit: Paul Marc Mitchell
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

It would prove to be an expectedly light affair with that of the Sinfonia of London, along with maestro John Wilson who excels in all he does. He is happy to bring the lighter side of classical to many an audience and we cant blame him for it.

What surprised me most about these players was the laid back approach. It all felt like one big jolly, the percussionists during their many rest periods had faces of children back in assembly. And two players in the back of the violins are clearly loved up. Wilson would even loose his baton during the second half of the evening, all in keeping with the strange air of the night.

Walton and his Scapino makes a great concert opener and the Sinfonia clearly had a lot of time with the piece with practice. It was the timbre of the whole thing, the jolting, romp like feel for these few minutes which flew by. Very charming and we craved more. Following on was the first Ravel of the night: Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. I find his music to be the equivalent of a bath bomb, light and fizzy, though swiftly leaving you with nothing of interest other than coloured water. The pieces displays strands and sinew, evocative of impressionism of the era. This is a piece which doesn’t command attention and you can drift of in thought.

Of major appeal was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with soloist Martin James Bartlett. Playing with impish vigour, Barlett didn’t let up in it’s commanding jazz storm. It’s safe territory though back in its day, remaining groundbreaking for allowing popular music to be injected into classical. As ever the delight, this standard Gershwin delighted and we’d simply love to hear Barlett tackle his more meaty piano Concerto in F.

Upon hearing Debussy’s La Mer once again, I’ve found it to finally have appeal and intrigue. Maybe it’s the allusive nature of the score which is gradually waffling over me. Here the Sinfonia came into their own, the entire three movements inspired by the sea engulfed St David’s Hall, their shimmering, blazing delivery held up as a highlight of the night. What did annoy was the eye rolling choice of Ravel’s Boléro. The piece has reached meme level now, a joke even in his own day, met with boos and hisses. Wilson declared this to the the Welsh premier of the original version of the ballet score and not the later orchestral version.

There is little evidence of this being a premier proper and Wilson just seemed to have said this. The pieces in the it’s original guise is even more interminable, two snare drum players take turns with the tempo, a boring tennis match as we hear the same melody again and again. I’m all for minimalism but this takes the mickey. I was stunned by the amount of people stood on their feet after, though I will applause the players for a light, mostly French affair. They shall return in February with the glamour of MGM films…

REVIEW BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Mahler 9 with Markus Stenz             

Reviewed by Barbara Hughes-Moore

The Cardiff Classical 2022-23 continues with its latest concert at St David’s Hall, featuring one of the finest symphonies by one of the greatest Romantic composers. German conductor Markus Stenz leads the BBC National Orchestra of Wales through Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony, the last completed symphonic work before his death in 1911.

The 9th is something of a culmination of Mahler’s lifelong fascination with death, which we can trace from the ‘Polka with Introductory Funeral March’ which he composed aged seven. That doesn’t mean Mahler was aware of his unravelling mortal coil when composing the 9th, although – like Beethoven and Schubert before him – he died without completing his 10th symphony. After losing his daughter and being diagnosed with severe health issues himself, Mahler moved his family to their summer residence on the Austro-Italian border, to grieve and to recuperate. The gorgeous natural surroundings of Toblach were one of the key inspirations behind his final work, and its fascination with nature can be heard in every note, from the earthy second movement to the volcanic eruptions of the third.

Conductor Markus Stenz

And, as conductor Markus Stenz mentioned in the excellent pre-show talk with Jonathan James, you have to be personal with Mahler – the success of any performance is about what you put into it. It’s no surprise, then, that performances of any Mahler piece can vary significantly in timing and style (including those conducted by the man himself!) To play any piece of music is to be in dialogue with the composer – and Stenz’s connection with Mahler is positively subatomic. He received a German Critics’ Award for his recording of Mahler’s 5th with the Gürzenich Orchestra, and conducted Mahler’s 2nd with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra earlier this year.

Markus Stenz and the NOW in rehearsal. Photo credit: Yusef Bastawy

Stenz, who studied with Bernstein and who has performed on three continents this season already, is a characterful and expressive leader who embodies every emotion of Mahler’s vivid tapestry. The Orchestra is on fine form, and there are myriad ‘Mahler Moments’ to be enjoyed here, including a slew of terrific solos by the NOW’s finest, from lead violin Lesley Hatfield to principal percussionist Chris Stock (who, before the concert began, was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society award for his charitable work in Patagonia).

Markuz Stenz and the NOW take a bow. Photo credit: Yusef Bastawy

While many Mahler symphonies journey from darkness into light, the 9th goes from the living to the otherworldly, with Stenz and the NOW seguing seamlessly from the frenetic bombast of the Big Bang to the emotional serenity of the closing Adagissimo. These fading refrains, according to Adorno, marked the first steps into modernity. Having begun with a universe bursting into being, the symphony culminates in a peaceful acceptance of mortality; a beautiful controlled stillness, like lying in the grass looking up at the stars. While death is inevitable, Mahler crafts beauty in its last breath – and Stenz and the string section’s delicacy and restraint are positively unearthly here, as together they conjure heaven in the Hall.

James Murphy, CEO of the Royal Philharmonic Society, presents Chris Stock with the society’s orchestral award. Photo credit: Yusef Bastawy

Stenz returns to Mahler (Adagio from Symphony No. 10) in January with the Philharmonia Zürich, after conducting the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra through Wagner’s Operas in December. He will tour across Europe and America through next year, conducting pieces from Beethoven and Bruckner to Tchaikovsky and Liszt. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales continue their spellbinding 2022-23 season with Stravinsky, Ravel and Boulanger, conducted by Sofi Jeannin, at BBC Hoddinott Hall at the end of November before playing a succession of Christmas concerts in Cardiff and Swansea.

Review Welsh National Opera, Orchestra, St David’s Hall by James Ellis 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 The sight of the WNO Orchestra is rare since we mostly see them in the pit of the Wales Millennium Centre. Chances to see them full throttle at St David’s Hall are always a pleasure and under the brilliant baton of music director Tomáš Hanus, this concert given the fitting moniker of ‘Czech Mates’.

Half of the programme for this concert would be smattering chunks from operas, yet a deeper divine into he orchestras repertoire were present. The Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Britten was done with subtlety and fury. It only makes you crave a full performance of Britten’s masterwork, not seen with WNO for what must be decades. There shimmering allure of the North Sea, church goers and the battering of a rampant storm all feature here, filled with nuance. 

Dvořák and his Biblical Songs followed, with a pleasing turn from Jana Kurucová, a Slovakian mezzo who brought the spirit of the composer into the space. There was a hushed feeling to these setting of a selection of Psalms, ‘Thou art my hiding place’ and a setting of ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ as examples. Though I wasn’t as taken with them as I expected, I found Jana to be a rich singer who added a fine feature to this concert.

Wagner would arrive after the interval, the Prelude & Liebestod from his epic opera Tristan und Isolde. The seething erotic tension in both extracts (the start and end of an opera a good four hours in length) burst out, the orchestra poised in space in spacing and phrasing. They excel at Wagner, Wales having an extensive history with the highly problematic composer. The famous, reedy Tristan chord heard once again as it all wraps up, begins ‘modern music’ in many ways, yet brings us back to start of the prelude. Clever, as ever.

Janáček is proudly put on by Tomos every opportunity he can get, his native composer always offering wacky and inspired musical offerings that are usually a highlight on the opera stage and concert hall. His Sinfonietta, opens and closes with the soaring addition of a mass of additional  brass, leading on to eccentric string writing, a declaration to the folk music of his land and a catchy rambunctious nature hard to ignore. Tomos seems to float when with Janáček and we in Cardiff always welcome its magic.

Review Agata & Wojciech Szymczewski, RWCMD by James Ellis

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

In an afternoon of light delights the sibling brilliance of Agata & Wojciech Szymczewski delighted the audience at the Royal Welsh. This was very much the definition of the ‘Polish miniature’, fairly light music though not without the weight of it’s country’s history and culture.

The Legend and Kujawiak of Wieniawski is pretty famous, certainly the most familiar music on the programme. I still remain unsure about the true value of Chopin (this will land me in trouble), though hearing his Mazurka in A minor remained a pleasure. To see this brother and sister play feels like an honour, Agata on violin remains such a force the instrument seems to capture to her every whim. It is as if she was born to play the violin and every second with her proves her gusto and passion for her nation’s music. On piano, Wojciech also offers some fabulous insights, his accompaniment never wains in his intimacy with his sister. Though these pieces are very much chances to show off the violin proper, Wojciech makes a perfect companion for the journey.

New discoveries in the Polish repertoire would see work by Bacewicz and Adam Wroński, which delighted in openness and charming nature of the writing. The air is very Polish, some whispers of the country’s great folk music culture passed through. The essence of the fiddle lived in this brief concert. The Cradle Song of Szymanowski proved a much more ‘modern’ affair, the traditions still invited and present, though the drabness of it’s features might turn some off. Still, it had a beauty of its own, distilled and abstract, a piece that’s demands some effort and attention.

We’d welcome back these siblings anytime to Cardiff.

Review Yeol Eum Son Recital, Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama by James Ellis  

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

After a blazing take on Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto with our BBC NOW a few weeks prior, Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son popped back to Cardiff for a much more intimate affair at the Royal Welsh for a Sunday morning recital which had highlights and less interesting work.

The Trois Pieces pour piano by Guillaume Lekeu started us off, a nice opening feature though I found it to be rather inconsequential. A mighty tonal shift followed with the finale to Stravinsky’s  The Firebird. Though most of the ballet score is rather dull, it is the last ten odd minutes that dazzle, Yeol throwing herself into the piece which is a showy number that usually ends a concert. I detected at least a wrong note or two through the clamour of the soaring final pages, yet how profound the whole thing was. She owned the sequence and I was rather taken with her virtuosity on display. 

More tonal shifts with William Hirtz and the Wizard of Oz Fantasy, a charming selection of the famous chunks from the timeless film. It was all here: Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the music for the Wicked Witch, We’re Off to See the Wizard and more. You could feel Yeol’s enjoyment in this fluffy choice and it led to an interval making us crave more. The First Sonata from Janáček known as ‘From the Street’ had an air of difficulty, some tender moments you’d expect from the Czech master composer. I’ve always held firm that he writes better for orchestra then piano. I found I lost interest within it, only brought back with more tender, touching moments as it reached it’s conclusion. 

A few nights prior, a musician friend spoke highly of the music of Russian Nikolai Kapustin. Eager to check out his music, I didn’t have to look very far as Yeol brought the concert to a close with his Second Sonata. Every pore of score dripped with jazz, though I feel this was a detriment to the genre. The formal proceeding of having the jazz in a classical folding almost denies it the right to get lost and breezy. Amusing moments were met with toe tapping phases, though I did wonder how generic this sort of jazz has become. Never the snob to declare the genres shouldn’t mingle, I just wasn’t wowed by the sonata. 

This proved to be quite a varied and lively programme, more of the same variety is greatly encouraged.   

La Bohème – a review by Eva Marloes

photo credit Richard Hubert Smith
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

The Welsh National Opera reproposes Annabel Arden’s 2012 production of La Bohème, set in the early 20th century. It is a straightforward interpretation of Puccini’s opera with a minimal and, at times, unimaginative setting. The WNO succeeds in offering a production that is skillful and entertaining. Strong performances bring to life the romance, tragedy, as well as comedic elements of the opera.

Rodolfo (Jung Soo Yun) and Marcello (Germán E Alcántara) are skint artists living in a cold attic in Paris. Rodolfo falls quickly in love with frail Mimì (Elin Pritchard), but their complicated relationship flounders under the pressures of poverty and Rodolfo’s guilt for making Mimì ill. In contrast, Marcello’s affair with coquettish Musetta (Aoife Miskelly) is passionate and often funny. The friends Schaunard (Mark Nathan) and Alcindoro (Alastaire Moore) add to the bittersweet comedy of the production.

Elin Pritchard, as Mimì, and Aoife Miskelly, as Musetta, shine giving by far the best performances. Pritchard, who was a superb Michäela in a past WNO’s Carmen, is graceful and powerful. She conveys a tender tragedy infused with love and loss. Aoife Miskelly, who previously delighted the audience as the Cunning Little Vixen, performs with brio, charm, and sophistication. Miskelly has a beautiful light in her voice.

Baritone Germán E Alcántara gives a powerful performance with. Jung Soo Yun has a beautiful tonality but limited range. Jung’s voice lacks the power needed to counter the orchestra. This is disappointing, especially after he gave a masterful performance in Les Vêpres Sicilliennes.

photo credit Richard Hubert Smith

The quartet of the two couples Mimì and Rodolfo, and Musetta and Marcello is effective though underwhelming. Mark Nathan, as Schaunard, and Alastaire Moore, as Alcindoro, give robust performances holding the scene in Act Four.

The WNO’s choir is impeccable, as always, with a strong stage presence. The orchestra, under the baton of Lee Reynolds, gives a solid performance. This production of La Bohème is let done by the rehashing of a past production lacking in imaginative interpretation and an overly minimal setting, which here includes video projections of birds and of snow.

Review BBC National Orchestra of Wales, St David’s Hall, Cardiff, Barbara Michaels

Piano Concerto No 3 by Sergey Rachmaninov

Soloist: Yeol Eum Son

Conductor: Ryan Bancroft

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

A star performance of Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto – said to be one of the most difficult and challenging of piano concertos in the concert pianist’s repertoire -by the multi-talented South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son was the choice of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales for their opening concert of the season. Performed to a packed audience at St David’s Hall in Cardiff last night. (October 6th) and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, what a night it was! A diminutive figure in a black evening dress, soloist Yeol Eum Son gave those fortunate enough to secure a ticket an evening to remember. This powerful concerto, composed in 1909 but not given full acknowledgement until several years later, then becoming increasingly popular in the 1930’s when it was performed to great acclaim by Vladimir Horowitz, was given a supremely sensitive all-embracing performance throughout by Yeol Eum Som.

The opening movement, Allegro ma non tanto, was interpreted with sensitivity and skill, with Yeol caressing the keys as a lover might caress his or her beloved, to change into a powerful full throttle engagement with the keyboard. With her fingers flying so fast that at times the sight of them became a blur, this tiny almost unbelievably slender young woman switched effortlessly from the gentlest of melodies to the powerful octave-spanning moves that make this concerto a concerto to be feared for some soloists., thus making this performance a rare and special occasion. Yeol Eum Son’s ability to control and shape every poetic nuance – much in evidence in the great solo cadenza – plus her fearless and bravura attack on the most difficult of passages is awe-inspiring.

For the Intermezzo: Adagio-un poco piu mosso – a set of variations by the orchestra alone gives temporary rest to the soloist, notable among these at this performance being the short flute solo, performed with feeling despite its brevity, followed by solos from oboe, clarinet and horn. Then the piano bounces back with a powerful yet melodic attack on the keys ferocious in its brilliance, segueing seamlessly into the Finale Alla breve and a vigorous ending.

Full credit to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of their leader first violinist Lesley Hadfield. The rapport between the soloist and the conductor Ryan Bancroft, who have worked together many times was extraordinary and no doubt contributed to the high standard of a performance that had the audience shouting for more and bringing the soloist back four times. Broadcast on BBC Radio Three, this memorable performance gave its audience and those who listened at home, a night to remember and an opening night that bodes well for this great symphony orchestra during the coming season.

Please note due to ill health, Barbara reviewed only the first half of the performance.

Coming next:: Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, conducted by Markus Stenz . Thursday, 17/November, 2022, at 7.30 pm at St David’s Hall, Cardiff.

REVIEW BBC National Orchestra of Wales: ‘Romance & Riots’ at St David’s Hall by Barbara Hughes-Moore

Cardiff Classical 2022-23 opened with a bang last night at St David’s Hall with two of the most raucous, romantic and indeed riotous concertos of the last century. The opening concert, entitled ‘Romance and Riots’, featured Sergey Rachmaninov’s sumptuous Third Piano Concerto and Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – two orchestral works by two celebrated Russian composers, written just four years apart, and yet they couldn’t be more different.

Led by American conductor Ryan Bancroft and performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with German-based South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son, the concert traverses multiple (often contrasting) sounds, rhythms and stories, and paints these classic concertos in gorgeous new colours.  The NOW perfectly captures the dramatic dynamic contrast and sheer epic scale of the music, while Bancroft and Son give incredibly precise, passionate, and characterful performances.

As a conductor Bancroft guides the orchestra through the character and emotion of the piece, making it just as exhilarating a physical performance as it is a musical one. Son is an extraordinary soloist and an immensely expressive performer, drawing the audience in with every movement, from the intense, juddering chords to the glimmering crescendos. There is a real power to her performance that meant that the audience was feeling every note and emotion of the piece right along with her.

And what can be said of The Rite of Spring that hasn’t been said already? As Jonathan James mentioned in an excellent and memorable pre-show talk, to say that the piece caused something of a stir in its 1913 debut is quite the understatement: the avant-garde music – stoked by political and class discontent – caused a riot in the theatre, with the dancers and musicians gamely playing through the mayhem right until the final bars. The piece itself is, as James explained, “order disguised as anarchy”; a volcanic, visceral retelling of a young woman who dances herself to death to appease the gods of Spring. Its epic discordance and jazzy polyrhythms would go on to inspire future composers from Gustav Holst to Bernard Hermann – but the original remains as shocking today as it was a century ago.

This is pianist Yeol Eum Son’s first time working with both conductor Ryan Bancroft and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. She performs next in Madrid, performing Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand in D major on 20-21 October, before heading back to Cardiff’s RWCMD to perform Stravinsky once more – this time, the Firebird Suite – along with pieces by Lekeu, Hirtz, Janáček and Kapustin, which sounds like the perfect complement to tonight’s programme.

NOW can be next seen playing the 1001 Arabian Nights family concerts in Cardiff and Swansea, before performing Bach, Liebermann and Schmidt at the end of the month and Elgar’s Cello Concerto in November. Bancroft next conducts the Malmö Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, playing pieces from Dvořák, Copland and Netzel, the latter two with Peter Friis Johansson on piano.

What a start to the Hall’s 40th anniversary year!

Review The Makropulos Affair, Leos Janacek-Welsh National Opera WMC 16 09 22 by Gwyneth Stroud

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Having seen the various production of Janacek’s operas by Welsh National Opera (WNO) over many years, it is particularly thrilling to have the opportunity to see one unfamiliar to me – The Makropulos Affair.  On reading background about the plot and theme of the opera, it sounds remarkable, so it’s somewhat surprising that it doesn’t seem to be performed very often.  Olivia Fuchs’ new production for WNO rectifies this.

What does it feel like to have already been alive for over 300 years?  Clearly, none of us can know, but this is the premise of The Makropulos Affair.  Emilia Marty was born in 1585, and, by virtue of a potion devised by her father, has achieved immortality.  The recipe for the concoction was given to a Baron Joseph Ferdinand Prus in order that it be incorporated into his will.  But Emilia – true identity Elina Makropulos – now needs this formula if she wishes to live for a further 300.  It’s decision time.  Will she take the potion or accept her mortality?  But first a century-old battle over a will must be settled in order to secure the elusive recipe.

Act 1 opens in a solicitor’s office.  The paper-heavy nature of the business is deftly portrayed, with huge mountains of files everywhere, the feeling of depth created through the use of suspended paperwork as columns.  A sense of time and place comes via a video projection onto the back of the stage (credit to Sam Sharples), placing the action firmly in the 1920s and providing a reminder of the role of time via clock mechanisms and a metronome. Lighting is skilfully employed throughout, the muted hues ever changing to match the mood. Credit to Robbie Butler here. 

Backstage at the opera house, Act II brings movement and colour, flamboyant red dominating throughout in the pile of roses left for Emilia Marty and her top-to-toe (including hair and necklace) outfit – it’s all or nothing with her.  Ice-cold Act III beautifully captures Emilia steely demeanour – combing her hair is of more interest than learning of Janek’s death.  The all-white set – outfit, bed, dressing table, suitcases – is in stark contract to the opulence of Act II and a fitting backdrop to the heightened drama and tension of the final scene. Designer Nicola Turner has done a fantastic job.

 Keeping up with the various family relationships is challenging and the projection of the family tree onto the back of the stage at various points feels heavy handed, particularly in conjunction with reading the surtitles.  Better is the use of a comedic interlude between the first two Acts, in which the doctor seeks to explain matters (aided by a blackboard and easel).  I could almost hear a collective “at least it’s not just me” from the audience.

Angelas Blancas Gulin shines as Emilia Marty.  She manages to capture her guile, passion, torment, cruelty and coldness at various points throughout, and her soaring finale is captivating.  Nicky Spence as Albert Gregor is perfectly cast, frustrated throughout and, against his better judgment, falling for Emilia.  Dr Kolenaty’s role is taken by Gustav Belacek, his clipped tones ideal for conveying lawyerly detail and precision. Baron Jaroslav Prus is played by David Stout, tragic in the face of his son Janek’s suicide.   Credit must also go to Harriet Eyley (Krista) and Alexander Sprangue (Janek) who performed their small but not insignificant roles well.  Alan Oke takes the role of poor Count Hauk-Sendorf, played empathetically and with feeling.  Mark Le Brocq’s clear scene-setting at the beginning of the opera is welcome, given its (relative) complexity. Other roles were Julia Daramy-Williams (Chambermaid) and Monika Sawa (Cleaning Lady).

Conductor Tomas Hanus is at home here, veering from the terrifying to the beautifully melodic to the  tragic, and always providing a masterful lead.  The orchestra of WNO is as flawless as ever.  Long may this opera company’s warm relationship with the operas of Janacek continue.

You can find out more about this production and book tickets here