A Life On-Line: Joyce DiDonato in the Ruhr, ORA Singers in the Turbine Hall, Dowland at Hatfield House

Suzi Digby and ORA Singers in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern
Suzi Digby and ORA Singers in the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern

Our week started with Joyce DiDonato who gave a live recital as part of the Met Stars Live series. Originally intended to be filmed in Barcelona (where DiDonato lives), the venue was moved twice and ended up being filmed at the Jahrhunderthalle Bochum in the Ruhr, Germany. The programme, inspired by the Langston Hughes poem I dreamed a world, moved freely between Baroque and Contemporary, with a lot in between and there was an element of ‘no expense spared’ about it as for the Baroque music, DiDonato was accompanied by the period instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, and for the remainder of the repertoire by Carrie-Ann Matheson on piano. It was a staged recital, DiDonato did not use music and brought a strong element of dramatic staging to her performance, so that a vivid yet fragile account of Ottavia’s ‘Addio Roma’ from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea led to a highly dramatic and very personal performance of Didon’s final scene from Berlioz’ Les Troyens which seemed to almost merge into Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen sung with intimate, bleached tone. It was a striking concept and DiDonato’s mesmerising performance held things together despite the disjoint between Il Pomo d’Oro’s accompaniment of the Monteverdi and the Berlioz on piano.

If the first section of the recital was all about loss, then the second was intended to consider the consolation of nature. We started with the American traditional song Shenandoah sung unaccompanied, followed by a strikingly direct account of ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ from Handel’s Theodora, and then an engagingly dancey version of Penelope’s ‘Illustratevi, o cieli’ from Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse with lots of delightful ornamentation from the instruments. Finally, in this section came Ariodante’s joyous ‘Dopo notte atra e funesta’ from Handel’s opera, again with a sense of dance rhythm so strong that you felt that DiDonato wanted to dance as well as sing.

Next came a contemporary piece, a new commission; a setting of Langston Hughes’ I dream a world by Kenyatta Hughes, at first a slow bluesy, it became more dramatic yet always highly soulful. DiDonato met Kenyatta Hughes whilst he was incarcerated at Sing Sing Prison, and she commissioned the song directly from him. In one of the intervals of the concert there was a tri-partite discussion between DiDonato, Kenyatta Hughes and Sister Helen Prejean (who wrote the book Dead Man Walking on which Jake Heggie’s opera was based). This was followed by another of the programme’s striking leaps, back to Antonio Cesti’s 1656 opera Orontea and a touching account of ‘Intorno all’idol mio’, and the final appearance of Il Pomo d’Oro in the programme.

The juxtaposition of Cherubino’s ‘Voi che sapete’ from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Edith Piaf’s La vie en rose (written by Louiguy) might not seem obvious, but DiDonato had decided to return to Cherubino (a role she has not sung on stage for some time) by imagining the young man in a French cabaret! Then came the elegant melancholy of Alberto Ginastera’s Cancion al arbol del olvido, and finally ‘You’ll never walk alone’ from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel which certainly does not sound hackneyed when DiDonato sings it! [Met Stars Live]

On Wednesday, Suzi Digby and ORA Singers gave the premiere of James MacMillan’s 40-part motet Vidi aquam in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern (celebrating the release of their recent disc of the work alongside Tallis’ 40-part motet, see my review).

This had been intended to be a public concert linked to work with local school children, but this latter element had to be dropped (along with the audience). So what we had was Suzi Digby and 40 well-spaced out singers in the large-scale space of the Turbine Hall. The programme opened with Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium, in a poised and beautiful account, there then followed William Byrd’s Ave Verum and Roderick Williams’ beautifully considered contemporary reflection on the Byrd. Finally, came James MacMillan’s Vidi Aquam, a 40-part motet reflecting on the Tallis, with MacMillan at first echoing Tallis’ textures and harmonies and then allowing them to dissolve. I would still love to be able to experience the MacMillan live, but hearing this live relay was a lovely second best [ORA Singers]

On Friday, we returned (digitally) to Hatfield House for the second of the concerts from this year’s Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival. First we heard Elizabeth Kenny (lute) and Iestyn Davies (countertenor) in a glorious programme of John Dowland songs performed in the Long Gallery, intercut with footage of Davies being shown and reading from John Dowland’s long letter to Robert Cecil (which includes Dowland’s suspicion that he failed to get a post at the court of Queen Elizabeth because of his conversion to Roman Catholicism). The second half of the programme was also linked to the collections in the house, as organist Richard Gowers gave a recital on the rare 1609 organ in the Armoury with a selection of pieces very much linked to the music in the house’s archives, with a voluntary and a fugue by Handel, a voluntary by Tomkins, music by Byrd from My Ladye Nevells Booke, and La doune cella which is attributed to Tallis. [Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival]

Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra have started a new on-line series, Music from Wyastone and began with a lovely group of Richard Strauss songs sung by soprano April Fredrick. Strauss’ Four Last Songs were performed in a chamber orchestration by James Ledger which was written for Felicity Lott and the Nash Ensemble, and the recital ended with Strauss’ Morgen. A rather touching link to the present crisis was that Fredrick came down with COVID-19 in March and this recording (made in July) was very much her return to performing after illness [English Symphony Orchestra]

One of my contacts, and a potential collaborator on a new piece of mine, is soprano Sarah Parkin who was lucky enough (if that is the right word) to be in the final of the 43rd Eckhardt-Grammaté Music Competition. This was an on-line version of a Canadian competition normally held in Manitoba and which specialises in music composed after 1950, with an emphasis on Canadian composers. Six singers and their accompanists all took part, and all sang Hang Kang: Lost in Translation by Gordon Fitzell (born 1968) which was commissioned for the competition. You can see all the performances and the awards on-line.

Opera Prelude is an organisation which seeks to support young artists via its year-round programme of lecture recitals. As these are not able to take place live, at the moment, they are offering a series of lectures and lecture recitals on-line; already on-line are interviews with Roderick Williams and with Natalya Romaniw and coming up is a two-part lecture by Dr Natalia Murray on the Ballet Russes, Diaghilev and his circle. [OperaPrelude]

The Birmingham-based choir, Ex Cathedra is 50 this year and with its music director Jeffrey Skidmore has compiled an on-line celebration which involves performances of music by the Renaissance composer Ignazio Donati (1570-1638), a new piece by Liz Dilnot Johnson, part of Alec Roth’s Earthrise, and two pieces originally commissioned for the choir’s 40th anniversary by Judith Weir (conducted by the choir’s associate conductor Hilary Campbell) and by James MacMillan [Ex Cathedra]

St Mary’s Perivale runs a regular concert series, this year the series is continuing but streamed live without an audience. On Sunday, composer Howard Blake was joined by violinist Madeleine Mitchell for a recital of his works for violin and piano, with much which ranged from the large-scale and serious to the lighter, with Penillion, Violin Sonata, Jazz Dances and a group of pieces from The Snowman which Blake arranged specially for Mitchell [YouTube]. The series at St Mary’s Perivale continues and is well worth catching, this week there are two recitals pianist Martin Cousins, and then Lana Trotovsek (violin) and Maria Canyigueral (piano). Of particular note is the Beethoven piano sonata festival with all 32 sonatas performed by 32 pianists on 3 and 4 October (full details) and there are 30 concerts in total before Christmas. [St Mary’s Perivale]

Soprano Hazel McBain and mezzo-soprano Katie Coventy were due to be singing Hansel and Gretel with Waterperry Opera this Summer. They joined forces with pianist Eun Jung Lee to provide The Musicians’ Company’s Midday Music the other week, singing Mendelssohn’s delightful Sechs Lieder Op. 63, six duets published in 1844 setting a variety of poets (including doing the Robert Burns setting in the original Scots!). Katie Coventry joined Musicians’ Company Young Artists’ Programme after winning our Silver Medal at the Royal College of Music in 2017 [YouTube]