Ballet Concert with Dance Activate Review by Neil Crutchley

Sunday 24th March 3pm
De Montfort Hall Leicester

There is an admirable generosity of spirit in the Bardi Symphony Orchestra. Whether it be encouraging young musicians, getting together with local choirs or as in this concert, performing alongside Dance Activate, the willingness to share the concert platform brings enormous rewards for everyone involved, not least members of the audience.

That was certainly the case with this hugely enjoyable presentation, the second of the orchestra’s partnerships with Graham Fletcher’s team of talented young dancers. Everyone benefits: the dancers have the opportunity to perform with an excellent orchestra; the orchestra has the chance to play great ballet scores and to have the live dancers in front of them and the audience has the pleasure of both watching and listening.

The main work and the one in which Dance Activate featured, was the whole of the 2nd act of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet with all its familiar characteristic dances and great Pas de Deux.

One of the most difficult aspects of conducting for the ballet (I imagine) is keeping everything together, yet this presentation was beautifully coordinated and Claus Efland as always, conducted with authority and panache. Each of the dances was charmingly characterised and the pacing was spot on – nothing forced or overdone yet full of life and vigour. There was an infectious sweep to the Waltz of the Flowers and in the Pas de deux, (probably the most substantial and emotional piece in the ballet) the conductor graded the climaxes with impressive assurance, only allowing the full force to emerge in the closing bars. Equally compelling was the finale where the various threads were drawn together into a powerful peroration.

I’m not a ballet expert but I think I can confidently say that the dancing was enchanting throughout. It was clear that hours of painstaking rehearsal had gone into reaching so high a standard. The various nationalistic dances with their splendid costumes was a real feast for the eyes and the glorious pas de deux was brilliantly executed by Oliver Speers and Samantha Camejo, both principal artists of the English Youth Ballet. The closing scene was especially affecting, featuring all the young dancers in turn and bringing the curtain down in glittering fashion.

The first half of the concert opened with an invigorating account of the Prelude and Mazurka from Coppelia and this was followed by the Ballet Music from Gounod’s Faust – once a relatively popular concert item but seldom heard nowadays. However it is a delightful piece – especially when played with such charm and affection. There was an infectious lift to the rhythms and the conductor’s ability to stylishly shape and turn a phrase was, as always, very impressive.

The same could be said of Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, a short ballet from his opera, La Gioconda. This too was once a concert favourite but is less often heard today. It is full of delightful melodies (one of which has been immortalised in a song by Alan Sherman) and the performance sparkled from the first bar to last.

It was very gratifying to see Claus Efland lavish as much care and attention to detail on these charming works as he would on a symphony by Brahms or Nielsen. Some conductors would see this sort of programme as an “easy ride” but happily he’s not one of them and consequently, in the case of the Gounod and Ponchielli, many of us were left thinking “Why on earth aren’t these pieces played more often.” What greater compliment could be paid to the quality of the performances?

The orchestral playing throughout the concert was astoundingly good. Not only as an ensemble, but also in the quality of the soloists within the orchestra – especially the woodwind. The Bardi must be one of the most professional of non-professional orchestras, as for long stretches it was difficult to believe we weren’t listening to a full-time group. Only very occasionally a slight discrepancy in string ensemble gave the game away, but even then the actual tone of the strings was extremely fine. Surprisingly, the sound from where I was sitting was not affected by the orchestra being in a “pit”.

Altogether this was a superb afternoon of music and dance, fully deserving the large audience it attracted.

 

War Requiem Concert Review – Claus Efland

War Requiem – Benjamin Britten
10th November 2018 De Montfort Hall Leicester

The Bardi is at the moment on its peek. I don’t think the Orchestra has since my tenure been any better. Great and committed playing with many many fine details. Full credit must be given to the Orchestra for controlling the balance so well – also in the loud bits – without loosing intensity. And it is a great skill (also when not very musical) that the Orchestra carries on and sticks to the beat if the playing gets rocky.

However, it is such a shame when piano, harp and percussion are joining in so late. With such complicated pieces, they should attend more rehearsals. But when the players are there, they work well and are so responsive. Great singing throughout the Requiem from the choirs – also from the choristers. How wonderful to have them with us.

The 3 soloists must have been the best voices we ever had. And they want to come back. So all in all a trememdous success in every sense for the Bardi, simply due to perfect management and outstanding commitment from everybody involved.

Best wishes

Claus

War Requiem Concert Review – Leicester Concert Goer Diary

The first performance of Britten’s War Requiem was certainly one of the most extraordinary musical events in the 20thc. Never in my lifetime has a new work received such acclaim. It sold over a 100,000 LP’s worldwide when it was recorded , a number unheard of for a classical disc. Of course, such popularity brought its inevitable number of nay sayers ,who assume that popular taste must be one that is debased, chief amongst them being  Igor Stravinsky , never noted for his generosity to  a fellow composer, and a distinguished American critic who declared the work to be in the last resort ‘superficial’.   Well, here we are in the 21st century and to judge by the frequency of the work’s performances around the globe the public’s initial opinion has been vindicated, that the War Requiem is a gold plated masterpiece of the choral repertoire.

However, it is a devil of a piece to deliver. There are first of all the problems of balance between the main and the chamber orchestras  and between the main choir and that of the choristers. The musical demands , the spotlighting at times of all participants, particularly the soloists where the males in particular are singing a song cycle in the middle of a Mass, are relentless. On occasions some problems are insoluble. I have heard the work done at least twice in London’s Festival Hall where the dry acoustics nullified some of the most striking features of the work. It was after all written for a cathedral and its spaces. In London perhaps the best venue in my experience was the dear old Royal Albert Hall but of all the concert halls Symphony Hall in Birmingham did just fine a few years ago in a performance under Andris Nelsons.

All the above might explain why I approached this performance with a degree of trepidation. Common to all the performances I had heard previously were top of the range singers, choirs and orchestras. In addition the level of expectation associated with this performance was unique. Here it was to be done on the day before the 100th. anniversary of the end of the Great War and, as if that was not enough, a week after Wilfred Owen’s own death on the battlefield a century ago. What a wonderfully moving touch it was for The Times to publish last week an obituary a 100 years on to a poet who was at the time of his death virtually unknown. With all that, how likely, I wondered, was it that soloists relatively early in their careers , three choirs of a provincial city, a largely amateur orchestra and a conductor directing the work for the first time would collectively be able to deliver the goods.

Well, they could and they did.  Of course, not everything resulted in complete satisfaction.  Of the soloists, soprano Ilona Domnich, singing the more conventional  part of the Mass itself, made perhaps the greatest impression with a glorious voice sailing above the orchestra on occasions. As regards tenor Mark Milhofer and baritone Malachy Frame tackling the Owen settings, both clearly have fine voices which were used here with considerable refinement. Ideally at times I wanted something a bit rougher, more dramatic. For example, in The Next War the forced trench jollity wasn’t quite communicated.  Also, I felt that a relatively light baritone was not an ideal voice for one or two of the settings, notably Britten’s devastating delivery of the poem  describing a big gun being brought into action. The final line  ‘May God  curse thee and cut thee from our soul !’ ideally does need a weight and darkness of timbre. However, conversely the likeness of voices did make the ‘Strange Meeting’ of the two opposing soldiers perhaps even more poignant in that it drove home the bond between the two that leads to the benediction of the work’s closing moments.

The local choirs rose to the challenges splendidly.  Unsurprisingly in such a huge work not everything was ideal. The problem of the positioning off stage of the choristers was not entirely solved. They were ethereal to the point of disappearance if one was seated stage right whereas  I was assured by one person they were splendid for those sitting stage left. In the main choirs there could at times have been rather more projection in some of the intense quiet moments of the score.  The start to the Libera Me was one such moment but here and elsewhere, as in the Dies Irae, waves of full throated sound eventually drove everything before it to magnificent effect. Overall, though, what was so moving was the obvious commitment of every member of each choir to strain themselves to the very utmost of their capacity and therefore time and again the essence of the work was communicated . That in itself made for an especially moving occasion.

And as for the orchestras, well, they were simply magnificent.  One aspect of Britten’s genius is his ability to conjure up the most atmospheric of sound worlds from small bands and nowhere is this better shown than in this work in the chamber orchestra’s accompaniments to the Owen poems. The drawback for the instrumentalists is their exposure! Suffice to say that time and again they fully supported the singers in establishing the wonderfully precise and evocative musical setting of each poem. Has any music ever been written that is more likely to produce tears than the setting of one of Owen’s very greatest poems, ‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’, or the ending of the work with, in the Libera Me,  the ghostly dream Purgatory of ‘Strange Meeting’? Here the orchestral accompaniment was simply superb in creating Britten’s and Owen’s vision. Lastly, it must be said that as far as the main orchestra was concerned there were just  too many fine moments to record but perhaps the palm goes to the brass who displayed, for example, a wonderful punch to the Dies irae.

Finally, there was the conductor, Claus Efland. This may have been his first performance of the work but he gave the impression of having a clear vision with everything at his finger tips, which obviously gave to all the security needed to ascend this Everest of music. Hence, he and all who took part were able to make this a truly memorable evening of remembrance and contemplation. At the end the silence was palpable and then all received the ovation they had truly deserved.

War Requiem Concert Review – Neil Crutchley

BARDI – WAR REQUIEM

 

Saturday 10th November 2018 saw many performances in England of Britten’s War Requiem, but I would doubt if any of them were more compelling or emotionally charged than Leicester’s, given by the Bardi Symphony Orchestra, the Leicester Philharmonic Choir, the Leicester Bach Choir, the Leicestershire Chorale and the choristers of Leicester Cathedral.

The fact that these are all local groups, performing to such a high standard, shows what can be done through commitment and dedication and makes one realise how fortunate we are in Leicester to have such talented musicians willing to expend time and effort to achieve such high standards.  It was a privilege to be in the De Montfort Hall for this performance. The simple, but beautiful effect of the two soldiers with heads bowed and guns lowered projected either side of the stage added to the poignancy of the occasion.

The War Requiem is one of Britten’s greatest creations. The remarkable and moving juxtaposition of the Latin Mass for the Dead with the disturbing and powerful poems of Wilfred Owen, creates a many-faceted, intensely emotional canvas that despite its complexity, speaks to the listener with a compelling and often heart-rending directness – and for me, this performance brought that home with resounding success. Yes, there may have been the occasional technical slip, but that can occur in the most “professional” of performances, but what this account under the Bardi’s Claus Efland had was an emotional power that went beyond the surface of the piece and at times had a searing intensity that took the breath away.

The work is fiendishly difficult to balance, having so many disparate sections. My only observation on that score would be that the choristers were a little too distant, having been consigned to an offstage corridor. Otherwise most of the balance problems seemed to have been solved. The choirs (trained by Tom Williams) were impressive in attack, rhythmic precision and dynamics – especially in the great climax of the Libera me, which was shattering in effect. But it wasn’t just the big climaxes that were effective, the singers were alert to the subtler aspects of Britten’s choral writing and the choristers, despite my reservation about their position, certainly achieved the required ethereal quality.

 

The standard of the playing in both orchestras was some of the best I’ve heard from the Bardi – and that’s saying something! All sections excelled themselves and the big moments had tremendous sweep and assurance. Both choirs and orchestras maintained a tension and accuracy that showed Claus Efland’s admirable technical control, confidence and intimate knowledge of the score – despite the fact that this was his first performance of the piece.

Soprano Ilona Domnich was assured and impassioned in her role in the Mass setting. She had no difficulty in soaring above the chorus whenever necessary.

The all-important male soloists were well-matched. Tenor Mark Milhofer was perhaps the more animated, but baritone Malachy Frame sang with precision and feeling but occasionally, as in the violent cursing of the great gun, at the close of the Sonnet on Seeing a Piece of our Heavy Artillery Brought into Action, he was rather overwhelmed by the chamber orchestra, but this is not the first time I’ve heard this happen. However his rendition of Bugles Sang was one of the most poignant and powerful I’ve heard, sensitively accompanied by the orchestra. Mark Milhofer showed a similar perception and passion in One ever Hangs and Move him into the Sun, which was heartbreaking in its sad intensity.

It is in these Owen settings that Britten shows his towering genius. Can anyone remain unmoved listening to So Abram Rose, with its devastating final lines and Strange Meeting; perhaps the most heart-rending of all – “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” – with its repeated line, “Let us sleep now.”? It was in these two unforgettable duet settings that the quality of the voices really showed, especially when they almost merge in the work’s closing pages.

I have no hesitation in saying that this was one of the best things the Bardi has done. It was a triumph of organization, presentation and interpretation. It packed an enormous emotional punch. The choice of date made it all the more telling – especially for those of us who had seen some of the recent TV programmes of archive footage of Great War veterans talking about their experiences and Sunday evening’s remarkable colour footage of life in the trenches.

The War Requiem is a great work of reconciliation – a cry for peace and a lament for the futility of war. It is as relevant in today’s world as it when it was written and when a century ago the “war to end all wars”, slew “half the seed of Europe, one by one”.