Steph Power presents her picks for the highlights of music & opera in Wales for this past year, 2015.
As music editor of Wales Arts Review, it’s always heartening to get a sense of the sheer spirit of musical endeavour and achievement across the country, mustered yearly in the face of shrinking budgets – and across an ever-broadening spectrum of genres from mainstream indie pop to the classical canon; from sonic art to the post-minimal avant-garde. I’d like to extend thanks to the directors who have written about their personal 2015 highlights for the Wales Arts Review classical music feature. To add to theirs and our critics’ words, here are just a few of my own stand-out events and performances from Wales and beyond. This year, I’m focusing on contemporary music and/or new productions. Here are the highlights of the Welsh arts in music & opera.
Firstly, the wonderfully ambitious culmination of Mark Bowden’s composer’s residency with the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales in A Violence of Gifts; a work which saw the composer successfully join forces with another, major Welsh creative voice in poet Owen Sheers – and at a time when large-scale orchestral commissions everywhere are becoming increasingly rare.
On that point, the continued re-invigoration of Tŷ Cerdd, Music Centre Wales, is proving greatly positive for the future health of Welsh and Wales-based contemporary work: 2015 saw the announcement that the International Society for Contemporary Music has admitted Wales as a full national member for the first time. The ensuing range of benefits to be afforded via the new ISCM Wales will be unfolded over the coming months and years, and will include the offer for Welsh composers to submit scores alongside other nations for international performance through the ISCM platform.
In May, visiting Estonians showed how a relatively small nation can find ways to safeguard and encourage their composers and musicians, often against the odds. At the internationally renowned Vale of Glamorgan Festival, the Talinn Chamber Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir presented three generations of composers from this proud Baltic State as featured composer, Arvo Pärt, was celebrated in his 80th birthday year. Also featured in 2015 was the British-Bulgarian composer, Dobrinka Tabakova, and we were lucky to have her in residence for key days of the festival. It was a great opportunity to hear a cross-section of her beautifully wrought music which, like Pärt’s but in its own, unique way, bridges worlds of the ancient and modern.
Back to BBC NOW, the annual Composition: Wales event is going from strength to strength each spring under conductor Jac van Steen – and this autumn saw Huw Watkins become the orchestra’s new Composer in Residence. Watkins will no doubt help the continued drive to encourage Welsh contemporary music, and it will be intriguing to see what further performance and education projects he is able to support alongside Composition: Wales as his own music receives deserved, increased exposure.
BBC NOW has recently made history as the first BBC orchestra ever to appoint a woman in a titled position: the Chinese conductor, Xian Zhang, will be a welcome, frequent visitor in Wales as the orchestra’s new Principal Guest Conductor following her successful concert with BBC NOW at the BBC Proms in July 2015. Welsh audiences will, of course, know Zhang from her more recent appearances with the Welsh National Opera orchestra (see Nigel Jarrett’s review here), having made her pit debut with the company to great acclaim with Nabucco in 2014.
Yet again, Welsh National Opera proved a source of inspiration and world-class achievement in 2015 (watch out for two new commissions to come next year for their 70th anniversary: Figaro gets a Divorce by Elena Langer and In Parenthesis by Iain Bell, which will also commemorate World War I).
Last spring, Artistic Director David Pountney’s new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande was both searingly intelligent and ravishingly beautiful, aided by an exceptional cast, and with stunning orchestral colour provided by the WNO Orchestra under Lothar Koenigs’ baton. Director Annalise Miskimmon went on to score a further, perhaps less likely, hit at WNO with her courageous production of I puritani for WNO’s ‘madness’ season. Here – in all too timely a fashion – it was not simply the heroine but the fact of war that was held to be insane, as Miskimmon and her team cast Bellini’s Roundheads and Cavaliers as warring Protestants and Catholics in 1970s Belfast.
Staying with opera but moving further afield, I have to flag up the recent world premiere of Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas at London’s Royal Opera House.
It’s always encouraging to see new work commissioned for the main stage at Covent Garden (the last was Mark-Anthony Turnage’s noisily kitsch Anna Nicole, some four years ago), and Haas delivered in anticipated beguiling fashion. His music is known for hovering on that elusive, noumenal brink where sound becomes colour, and vice versa. Here it took on yet further dimensions in Graham Vick’s intriguing, bleached-bare production, in an opera which explored life, death and the continuum between the two as viewed from inside/outside, beyond the grave (and, yes, the Beckett inference is deliberate).
As memorable as this was, however, my highlight beyond Wales was another opera directed by Vick; this time at his own Birmingham Opera Company, who win plaudits for bringing off in superb style an audacious, seemingly impossible project combining professional soloists and musicians with a chorus of local volunteers – who learned their challenging parts by ear.
Thirty-eight years ago, Tippett’s complex fourth opera premiered to the rolling of many critics’ eyes. Scorned as a sixties-fuelled, over-earnest attempt to get down with the kids, the visceral integrity and sheer social relevance of the work has largely been overlooked – until this year. Finally, The Ice Break was given the production it deserves, showing how a visionary staging at the right time and in the right venue can – if only in some cases and for a one-off event – prove redemptive of works once dismissed as failures.
In Vick’s cleverly choreographed, industrial warehouse setting, none of us were innocent bystanders. Sited amongst the jostling, mob chorus, we swayed with their mood: now adoring the doomed black champion, Olympion (sung by Ta’u Pupu’a), now racist and hating as black and white went berserk in post-Handsworth, post-Ferguson riot. Intimate pains of love and inter-generational conflict were etched against a background of political struggle as the once-exiled Lev (Andrew Slater) was reunited with his dying wife, Nadia (Nadine Benjamin) and damaged son, Yuri (Ross Ramgobin).
The cast sang and acted superbly, allied with conductor Andrew Gourlay’s excellent City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which revealed the hitherto clouded brilliance of Tippett’s uncompromising score. While Stephanie Corley’s Gayle and Chrystal E. Williams’s Hannah made sacrifices – one fatally, the other in renewal – ultimately, breaking the ice was shown to mean breaking down barriers. As Tippett intended, and as this production powerfully showed, the challenge remains vital, exhilarating – and urgent.
Header photo: BOC The Ice Break, credit Adam Fradgley
Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.