Tag Archives: Perth Festival

Madama Butterfly

Perth Theatre

Opera Bohemia’s compact, punchy Madama Butterfly may never have looked and sounded as good as it does on the stage of Perth Theatre for the company’s debut at the 50th Perth Festival of the Arts.

Working with the earliest version of Puccini’s score and with a small chamber orchestra in the pit for the first time, John Wilkie’s production may be nearly a decade old, but the clean symmetry of Magnus Popplewell’s set, the simple use of shadow-work on its screens, and the clarity of the story-telling, recognising the prescience of the work’s political message, are unimprovable.

Under the baton of Bohemia’s music director Alistair Digges, this revival’s great asset is that 11-piece ensemble, led by Feargus Hetherington, whose own solo contributions are a particular highlight.

On stage, the men in the cast supply some especially careful characterisation. Whitaker Mills is a troubled Sharpless, who sees disaster looming from early on but is not bold or interested enough to avert it. Seumas Begg gives much more subtle shape to Goro, the estate agent/pimp who makes the fatal introduction, than is often seen. There is a moral equivalence in the way both back off rather than become involved which casts the US Consul in an especially bad light here.

This is a modern dress production, with the nice touch of having Butterfly adopt contemporary American teen clothes in the “American home” she is keeping for her absent naval officer husband at the start of Act Two. Such detail does a lot of work in showing how little colonial geo-politics have altered since Puccini’s librettists were writing at the start of the last century.

Thomas Kinch gives a bluff, macho Pinkerton of slow emotional intelligence, so his tendency to over-sing the role early on could be said to match that interpretation, although his big tenor voice really comes into its own later. Like Louise Collett’s Suzuki, Catriona Clark’s Cio-Cio San is a link with earlier stagings, assured and at home in the coloratura of the role.

There is strong vocal casting in the smaller roles too, with Stephanie Stanway as Kate Pinkerton and Fiona Mackenzie taking the role of The Registrar, while special mention must be made of the (very) young Robert Nairne-Clark, who absolutely nails his extended presence on stage as Sorrow, the fought-over issue of the relationship. There is a further performance this evening.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Catriona Clark

Perth Festival / Tenebrae

St John’s Kirk, Perth

Goodness knows how many times we heard the word “Maria” sung in this Perth Festival performance by the superlative vocal ensemble Tenebrae under its founding director Nigel Short. At one point Górecki, in his motet Totus tuus, treats the word with such plaintive repetition it almost turns into the famous hit number from West Side Story. But this was an altogether more religious affair: a programme called Queen of Heaven dedicated to music inspired by the sanctity of the Virgin Mary.

If the setting seemed perfect, the ancient cathedral-like architecture of St John’s Kirk with its golden acoustics, an idle thought that the anti-Marian John Knox launched Scottish protestantism on this very spot did warrant a moment of ironic reflection.

But that was instantly washed aside by the integrity of performances that certainly didn’t hold back on the theatre and passion. It began with a rearguard assault, a piercing cry of “Maria” from the back of the St John’s nave, Tenebrae issuing the shrill declamatory opening of the Górecki with the same electrifying fullness that was to inform the entire evening. 

Whether in the seamless polyphony of Robert Parson’s 16th century Ave Maria, or the infectiously chaotic and exotic modernism of Giles Swayne’s 1982 Magnificat, this was a brand of choral singing that combined impeccable homogeneity with penetrating expressive range. Intonation was unshakeable, but the tonal options were never restrained. The bass voices reverberated in the rich acoustics, the high soprano notes ecstatic in flight, between which the inner parts wove with tastefulness and purpose. 

It was enlightening, too, to experience such rarely-heard Ave Marias as Bruckner’s seraphic setting, compared to the cool austerity of Stravinsky’s Russian Orthodox version. Or the more effusive and worldly Ave maris stella by Greig and Mater ora ilium by Bax, with Britten’s simple, strophic Hymn to the Virgin allowing a breakaway ensemble to enjoy a moment of blissful antiphony.

The second half opened with the haunting primitivism of Owain Park’s Ave maris stella and the unaffected lucidity of Tavener’s Mother of God, before interweaving a series of palate-cleansing chants with the lushness of Verdi (his Laudi all Vergine Maria for upper voices), the bittersweet piquancy of Poulenc’s Salve Regina and the euphoric climax provided by nonagenarian Margaret Rizza’s plainsong-inspired Ave generosa. 

Perth is currently celebrating its 50th annual Festival of the Arts. If Monday’s demonstration of choral perfection by Tenebrae is anything to go by, it’s doing so in style. 

Ken Walton 

Festival Gala / Scottish Opera

Perth Concert Hall

The Perth Festival has changed markedly over its 50 years, but as it celebrates that Golden Jubilee, a determination to present opera as part of the annual event remains a commitment. This year’s staged performance arrives at Perth Theatre next week in the shape of Opera Bohemia’s Madama Butterfly, and for many years it provided the only Scottish opportunity to see English Touring Opera and some very fine singers at the start of their careers. Before that John Currie masterminded the festival’s own bespoke productions, but in 1972 it was Alexander Gibson’s Scottish Opera company who brought two productions to the first festival, so it was fitting the national company provided this year’s opening gala concert.

Fitting, but perhaps also a little surprising, in that Scottish Opera has its hands full at the moment, with the revival of Don Giovanni newly opened in Glasgow and its own 60th anniversary season just announced. That meant the orchestra, conductor Stuart Stratford, and one of the quintet of young vocal talent on stage had been performing the previous evening in the Theatre Royal with only the smallest overlap in the repertoire they played in the Fair City.

That Don Giovanni duet, La ci darem la mano, teamed young mezzo Lea Shaw, who sings Zerlina in the touring production, with Jonathan McGovern, who takes over the title role from June 9. It opened a Mozart sequence that also featured Eleanor Dennis as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro and McGovern duetting with Catriona Hewitson as the Magic Flute’s Papageno and Papagena.

After the interval, that section was mirrored by the music of Puccini where the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut was bracketed by Hewitson singing O mio babbini caro from Gianni Schicchi and McGovern the very much less often heard Questo amor, vergogna mia from the composer’s early Edgar.

Neither of those parts of the substantial programme included the undoubted star of the evening, for all the quality of the singing throughout. Scotland’s Cardiff Singer of the World winner, Catriona Morison, was a compelling presence whenever she was on stage as well as being, with Stratford, an architect of the shape of the evening.

Her music was all in French and German, beginning with a sequence from Bizet’s Carmen that also involved Hewitson and Shaw as Frasquita and Mercedes, and then McGovern singing the Toreador’s song. Hewitson also partnered her in music from Massenet’s Werther and provided the Sandman to her Evening Hymn with Dennis as Hansel and Gretel. Those three also brought the programme to a close with music from Strauss’s Rosenkavalier which was, apparently, as much a treat for some members of the orchestra as the audience.

In fact the instrumentalists had the meatiest music of the night, in the instrumental interludes, in the appropriate opening fanfare of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and then the Overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, which began the second half. After all its trials and tribulations, the opera orchestra is currently at the top of its game.

For them, and for Perth Festival, this opening gala ticked a lot of boxes, and admirably included some more unusual music alongside the famous hits, even if that meant some tricky leaps in style, pace and tone, for the listener as much as the performers. Those structural flaws perhaps make it more difficult to berate the citizenry of Perth for failing to fill more of the seats.

Keith Bruce

Sponsored by Brewin Dolphin

Picture: Catriona Morison by Fraser Band


Perth Concert Hall

One of the constant enjoyments in life is to listen to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra playing Mozart. It’s tradition for them that goes back to the James Conlon recordings of the early 1980s and continues today under the likes of current chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev. There have been times, too, when this finely-tuned orchestra has simply self-driven itself through Mozart, as it did with the in-house guidance of leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore in this closing online concert of the Perth Festival.

And this Mozart delicacy – the short, light-fingered, Italianate No 33 – was much more than a warm-up to the starry appearance of Nicola Benedetti in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto that was to follow. In its own right, it had poise, the graceful triple-time opening Allegro, the soothing Andante, the downward swooping Menuetto and the pert Finale, all enlivened by shapely poeticism and a neatly-textured ensemble. It wasn’t the most flawless performance in terms of absolute togetherness, but in spirit it was a confectionary delight.

Benedetti may only be in her early 30s, but she carries her own lengthy and busy tradition of playing the Mendelssohn concerto, which – she recounted in her introductory remarks – featured in the last set of SCO performances she undertook before last year’s lockdown. 

So there was an obvious pertinence in returning to it here as the music world begins to reopen. A palpable optimism seemed to inform Benedetti’s performance, which bristled with intent from the word go. If this is a work that engenders impetuosity – there’s a fair argument for that – it was dealt here in spades, but with all the affectionate sincerity and heartfelt lyricism it deserves.

Was Benedetti’s response a little roughshod at times? To an extent, perhaps, in the heat of the opening movement, but there was consistency, wholehearted conviction in her playing, which in turn fed into the robust orchestral support. The melting tenderness of the Andante, opulent without labour or indulgence, was charming; the finale, joyous and liberated. 

That should have been the upbeat conclusion to the 2021 Perth Festival, were it not for an unexpected encore: Sally Beamish’s natty arrangement for violin, viola and orchestra of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Farewell to Stromness. Benedetti was joined front stage by principal viola Nicholas Bootiman, in a version stage-managed like Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, the musicians disappearing one by one, leaving only the duo under the lone spotlight, Max’s wistful melody drifting softly into the distance. 
Ken Walton

Available on the Perth Festival website till 7 June. 


Russian Soul: The Story of Rachmaninov in Song

Perth Theatre

As well as Perth’s wonderful concert hall, the redevelopment of Perth Theatre has given the Fair City another adaptable small music stage in the Joan Knight Studio. It was the ideal compact venue for this old-school three-hander by soprano Ilana Domnich, pianist Sholto Kynoch and narrator, journalist and broadcaster Michael White.

As White conceded early on, the life of Rachmaninov is not an especially happy tale, and he was, famously, a far from cheery chappy. Even when he found material success in exile in the West, that distance from home – and a picture of Mother Russia that no longer existed – has made the scowling six-footer with the massive keyboard-spanning hands a bit of a caricature.

White does his best to humanise him, and is careful to inject a bit of reality into the cliches of Rachmaninov’s life in his script, but it would be generous to say that we get a fresh picture of the man from the show. There is a glimpse of the fake-Russian idyll he created in his homes that intrigues, and it would have been good to learn more of his non-musical enthusiasms for speed-boats and fast cars, but, understandably perhaps, the focus is on the works.

Those, sadly, create the main structural problem with the show, and one which, to be fair, White acknowledges. Rachmaninov wrote no songs in the years of his Western success, so the material Domnich has to sing – which she does beautifully – all comes from the years before the 1917 Revolution, when the troubles of Rachmaninov’s life still lie ahead of him.

The instrumental music that made him famous, from the C sharp minor Prelude to the Paganini Variations, are illustrated by a few bars from each in the hands of Sholto Kynoch, which, inevitably, only leave the listener wanting to hear more.

Rachmaninov, I suspect, would have found that observation depressing, and the efforts of White and his colleagues to tie themes of the songs to elements of the life, albeit after the fact, are undeniably inventive, but it is debatable whether the structure of the presentation succeeds.

That said, the opportunity to hear Domnich sing Spring Waters and A Dream is worth the price of admission, even if she seems less comfortable away from her native tongue in the wordless Vocalise.

Keith Bruce

PERTH FESTIVAL: The Gesualdo Six

Perth Museum and Art Gallery 

“It’s not all about nymphs and shepherds.” With these teasing words from Owain Park, director of The Gesualdo Six, his slick tight-knit ‘a cappella’ vocal ensemble embarked on a 12-composer Renaissance journey entitled The Flower of the Italian Madrigal. En route were predictable themes of love, death, even a brief recourse to those nymphs and shepherds, but also via more unexpected diversions that ventured into such realistic realms as the world of Italian politics. 

The venue for this online Festival concert, released Tuesday, was well chosen, the city’s Museum and Art Gallery. Its classicism and booming acoustics were both an apposite visual and aural wraparound to the stylised grace of the music. The singers stood in a circle within, as if in conference, opening with Viva amore by the 15th/16th century madrigalist Bartolomeo Tromboncino, its rippling crisscross of parts fusing into a luminous counterpoint, enlivened by the reverb and the laddish conviviality of the group.

Progressing through the years brought a succession of choral delights. The pairing of Verdalot and Arcadelt – teacher and pupil – threw together the former’s optimistic hopes of a united Italy (Italia Mia) with the languid thoughts of approaching death in Arcadelt’s Beautiful White Swan. Then to the stately perfection of Palestrina’s Io son ferito before the darker tones of Morir non puo by  Maddelena Casulana (the first ever female composer in Western Europe to have a complete volume of her music published) and low-pitched wretchedness of Alessandro Striggio’s Misero Ohime.

The journey’s end was inevitably Monteverdi, two voluptuous examples that closed with the resigned calm of Rimanti in Pace from his Third Book of Madrigals, but not before further illustrating the riches of the genre in works by Giovanni de’ Bardi, Luca Marenzio, Vittoria Aliotti, Marco da Gagliano, and of course the anarchic harmonic inventiveness of Carlo Gesualdo, whose name the ensemble honours.

Had this programme not been so thoughtfully interspersed with explanatory comments from each of the singers, its stream of thought may not have been as captivating and intriguing as it was. As it happened, the presentation was balanced in every sense, the story well told, the journey well worth taking.
Ken Walton

Available to view until 3 June on the Perth Festival website


St John’s the Evangelist Church, Upper Norwood, London

Although the repertoire was entirely different, there was something reminiscent of the programmes put together by Scottish Opera’s Derek Clark for the company’s Opera Highlights tours about this quite uncharacteristic concert by Harry Christophers and his top rank professional choir, The Sixteen.

The comparison stands in the eclectic mix of material, the inclusion of a Scottish premiere performance alongside songs everyone knows, and in an interest in the sort of once-unfashionable Victoriana that may now be finding an audience again.

The programme – and the group’s latest album – takes its title from a setting of Longfellow by London-domiciled Italian composer Ciro Pinsuti, whose Good Night, Beloved was once a staple of choral societies. Better known than that piece nowadays were the Londonderry Air (Danny Boy), sung here in Bob Chilcott’s arrangement, and the Eriskay Love Lilt, presented in a new arrangement by baritone and composer Roderick Williams.

The Chilcott, with a very spare piano accompaniment played by Christopher Glynn, alternated unison singing and very accessible harmonies to great effect, while Williams’ arrangement had some technical similarities to the recital’s first Scottish performance of James MacMillan’s Children are a heritage of the Lord. This setting of Psalm 127 is MacMillan at his melodic mellowest, with a lovely descant line over acapella chords.

In what was mostly a secular selection, it sat alongside the works that opened and closed the concert, Edward Naylor’s Vox dicentis and Gustav Holst’s Nunc dimittis. Soprano Julie Cooper was on glorious pure-voiced form on the former, and she and tenor Mark Dobell made notable solo contributions throughout.

Contemporary choral writing was also present in the inclusion of Eric Whitacre’s popular Sleep, while Charles Villers Stanford’s The Blue Bird, setting Victorian poet Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, was another once-ubiquitous song to bracket with the Pinsuti.

This would have been contrast enough, perhaps, but the variety did not end there. Smaller groups of six or just three of the men in the choir added earlier songs that would have sounded more appropriate in a tavern than a church, and explained why the chaps deserved or needed a drink. From the pens of William Cornysh, William Hayes and the ubiquitous Anon, these might have seemed out of place in a Sixteen concert at a previous year’s Perth Festival yet somehow they worked splendidly well here.

Perhaps it is because we have so missed singing in these confined times, but this advert for the range of material to which Christophers’ choristers can apply themselves was exactly what was needed in 2021. Just as pitch-perfect was the conductor’s introduction, lamenting that he and his colleagues were missing the attractions of the Fair City and singing not in St John’s Kirk but in St John the Evangelist Church, Upper Norwood, London.

They also surely lost out on CD sales, as this listener would not have been alone in joining the queue to buy a souvenir of a memorable evening to take home.

Available to view via www.perthfestival.co.uk

PERTH FESTIVAL: Isata Kanneh-Mason

Perth Concert Hall

The most wonderful moment in a young musician’s career is when they suddenly appear to have cracked it; where maturity and composure hits in and a performance seems more a genuine lived experience than one of technique-masquerading-as-mastery. 

I’m not saying that moment arrived for pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason specifically with Sunday’s release of her gripping online Perth Festival programme. But for those of us experiencing her several recent appearances in Scotland, this was surely the turning point. Have a listen and decide for yourselves. The programme is available on line for 30 days.

She plays Mozart, Chopin, Gershwin and Samuel Barber, and in each case strikes an electrifying balance between stylistic deference and compelling rhetoric. The one advantage of playing in the absence of audience applause is that each piece can be heard in direct, uninterrupted context. Kanneh-Mason uses that opportunity to fully energise her programme, It hardly stops for breath.

Mozart’s C minor Sonata provides the perfect opener, clean and transparent on the one hand, exploiting fully the minor key dramatic potential on the other. Kanneh-Mason plays one against the other, visibly precise and articulate with her finger work, yet ever-aware of the emotional cut and  thrust of the opening movement, or the lyrical suppleness of the ensuing Adagio. There is utter confidence, too, in the extent to which spontaneous nuance gives expressive character to the musical phrase.

The immediate transition into Chopin’s Ballade No 2 is an easy one, given the calm triadic chordal theme with which it opens. But this, too, is music that thrives on the thrill of vying sentiments, this time in the stormy language of the Romantics. Kanneh-Mason unleashes the fiery element of the Chopin with blistering passion, allowing the work’s argument to reach fever point, and the ultimate triumph of reasoning to assert its quiet, restful resolution. 

To follow that immediately with Gershwin’s Three Preludes is to time travel with a ferocious jolt. Published in 1926, they are jazzy to the core. At their heart is a gorgeously bluesy Adagio, where once again Kanneh-Mason finds the supplest and subtlest of touches and expansiveness of tone with which to hone its melancholic lines. Either side, the Allegro ben ritmico and Agitato are set ablaze by electrifying pianism and effusive razzmatazz.

The most exciting piece comes last, Barber’s astringent Piano Sonata in E flat minor, commissioned by Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers, written in 1950 and, from the outset, characterised by a modernity we don’t always associate with the same composer’s Violin Concerto or Adagio our Strings. 

The troubled landscape of the opening bars searching for distant resolution, a bubbling “scherzo” as translucent and nimble as any of Ravel’s, the soulful angularity of the slow movement melodies, and the waspish rigour of the final fugue find Kanneh-Mason in total control of her thoughts and of this difficult music. She nails it in every sense. Here, surely, is a talented musician approaching full bloom.
Ken Walton

Available to view on the Perth festival website.

Perth Festival

May’s Perth Festival of the Arts has maintained a classical music core to its programme even as it has diversified into other areas of music, theatre and a popular art fair. This year, although it will not be able to welcome live audiences to its concerts, it has doubled down on that commitment, with a fine line-up of local and visiting artists.

The 49th festival opens on May 20 with a concert by the Scottish Ensemble, filmed in the Byre at Inchrya as the string group continues its eye-catching exploration of different venues in its own response to the current crisis. The programme will be an international journey, visiting the Balkans, Central Europe, the Americas and Scandinavia and culminating in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, the work that had been due to close Perth’s 2020 Festival.

On the days following there is a concert from Perth Concert Hall, with Spanish saxophonist Manu Brazo, violinist Claudia Uriarte and pianist Prajna Indrawati, a performance by chamber choir The Sixteen followed by a live Q&A with its founder and conductor Harry Christophers, and a solo piano recital by Isata Kanneh-Mason featuring works by Mozart, Barber, Chopin and Gershwin.

The following week, the festival has concerts at Perth Museum and Art Gallery with the Gesualdo Six singing Monteverdi and Palestrina, and at Perth Theatre Studio with the Sitkovetsky Trio playing Schumann and Tchaikovsky and soprano Ilona Domnich, pianist Sholto Kynoch and critic Michael White exploring the songs of Rachmaninov.

The classical series closes at Perth Concert Hall with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and soloist Nicola Benedetti playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.

Other ingredients of the programme include traditional music from Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton and jazz from the Fergus McCreadie Trio and big band Fat-Suit.

Tickets and Festival passes are on sale and full details are available at perthfestival.co.uk