Tag Archives: Peter Whelan

East Neuk Festival (1)

Although most of its loyal audience comes to the East Neuk Festival to hear world-class performances of classical chamber music in beautiful, intimate acoustics – particularly some of the lovely churches in that corner of Fife – artistic director Svend McEwan-Brown has long since widened the scope of the event to embrace other spaces, outdoor events and contemporary and world music and jazz, and the audience has demonstrated an appetite for those as well.

And while it is a remarkable blessing that some of the first rank performances of the work of Czech composers by members of the Pavel Haas Quartet and pianist Boris Giltburg had previously been heard only by those attending the Prague Spring Festival, ticket-holders were also able to see and hear freshly-minted work make its first-ever appearance.

On Sunday afternoon, the repurposed agricultural shed near St Monans, the Bowhouse, hosted the largest number of musicians it saw over the course of the event when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra played the last of a run of four dates under the baton of its former principal bassoonist, Peter Whelan. For East Neuk they were joined by soprano Anna Dennis, singing two arias from Mozart’s opera Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, with the fullest expression of anguish (in Traurigkeit) and anger (Martern aller Artern). As in the two symphonies on either side of those songs, Haydn’s 82nd “The Bear” and Beethoven’s 8th, the balance in the room and the detail in the performances was superb, the singer and the wind soloists, of which Whelan was once a star member, on top form.

Early on Friday evening, however, the same space had proved just as appropriate for a unique combination of amplified music, juggling and dance under the title Light the Lights, a beautifully presented hour of the music of Bach, Steve Reich and Nico Muhly that was as much a feast for the eyes as the ears.

With the indisposition of guitarist Sean Shibe, the musical responsibility rested on the shoulders of violinist Benjamin Baker, who not only performed that wide compositional repertoire, but was the physical narrative guide through much of it, starting with a Bach-playing amble from the back of the hall that was impressive enough on its own.

Thereafter he was joined by six members of Gandini Juggling who gave visual expression to some of the compositional techniques used by Reich with clubs and balls moving through the air, in and out of synchronicity. At the conclusion of the performance they added a programmed lighting element to the mix for Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, using recorded music.

In between, the jugglers added solo work and a wry nod to Ligeti’s 100 metronomes while Baker played a movement of Reena Esmail’s Darshan and combined forces with dancer James Pett on an interpretation of Muhly’s A Long Line, for violin and electronics. Much of this had a “work in progress” feel to it, but the sense of being admitted to the creative process was the joy of it, especially with the expressive choreography of Pett, who has a hinterland of work with Richard Alston and Wayne McGregor.

Rihab Azar by Neil Hanna Photography

In Anstruther Town Hall on Friday evening, clarinettist Julian Bliss brought a whole suite of box-fresh arrangements by vibraphone player Lewis Wright that extended his jazz excursion into surprisingly contemporary areas. The advance publicity for the Hooray for Hollywood programme had suggested the group was following its acclaimed Gershwin programme with film music from the “Golden Age” of screen musicals. In fact some of the highlights of the set were from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the 2011 movie Midnight in Paris, which adapted Bechet and Django Reinhardt for modern ears. There were classics from the Great American Songbook as well, but Bliss and his cohorts produce a disciplined sound that is a long way from the pub trad band.

As far as East Neuk’s core activity is concerned, this was a year of great riches, with pianists Elisabeth Leonskaya, Pavel Kolesnikov, Samson Tsoy, Boris Giltburg and Christian Zacharias all featured. Leonskaya played Schubert Trios with violinist Liza Ferschtman and young cellist Ivan Karizna in which the beautiful tone of the latter was a discovery, while Kolesnikov and Tsoy explored the same composer’s writing for four hands.

Although no dedication was made, there was surely a nod towards the situation in Ukraine with the Pavel Haas Quartet prefacing its Kilrenny Church concert with Joseph Suk’s nationalist Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn, St Wenceslas. Followed by Korngold’s Quartet No 3 and Janacek’s “Intimate Letters”, this was the Pavel Haas on fertile home territory, the muscular playing of leader Veronika Jaruskova and cellist Peter Jarusek tempered by the newest recruit Luosha Fang, whose viola was so central to the latter.

In Crail Church, the violin and cello couple were joined by Giltburg for two Dvorak trios: the 1876 No 2 is more conventional but less often heard and the 1891 No 4 “Dumky” was given a beautifully-shaped performance, with a particularly memorable steady pulse in the fourth movement. The same venue saw the full quartet joined by Giltburg to play piano quintets of Brahms and Dvorak, as featured on their acclaimed Supraphon recordings.

It is St Ayle Church in Anstruther that often houses other steps away from the mainstream at East Neuk, and it was home this year to the virtuosic oud player Rihab Azar. Combining with bassist Dudley Phillips and percussionist Beth Higham-Edwards, she provided a whistle-stop tour of the contemporary chamber music of Egypt, Iran and her native Syria in a refreshing and relaxing Sunday lunchtime recital that was in some ways a bridge between the core canon of East Neuk and the festival’s more radical exploratory side.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Gandini Juggling by Neil Hanna

SCO / Whelan

City Halls, Glasgow

Lasting under an hour from start to finish and with around 45 minutes of actual music, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has certainly played longer programmes than this one directed, initially from the harpsichord, by its former principal bassoon Peter Whelan. It is unlikely, however, that anyone felt short-changed, such were the riches within it.

Entitled Hidden Gems, the music would perhaps more accurately be described as “neglected”, although composed by Bach, Mozart and Haydn.

Mozart provided the concert’s show-stopper in the second of two concert arias sung by Anna Dennis. It is probably fair to say that Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! (Let me explain, o God!) is rarely heard because few sopranos are able to sing it with confidence. Written for his sister-in-law Aloysia Weber, to be dropped into another composer’s opera as a showpiece for her talents, it requires a huge range and features some extraordinary interval leaps from the mezzo range to stratospheric top notes. Dennis was in spectacular voice, and ably supported by the duetting oboe of Michael O’Donnell, although his part did not include the same pyrotechnics.

The other song was also written by Mozart for his wife’s sister, and why it is not more often heard is more of a mystery, as Nehmt meinen Dank, ihr holden Gönner! (Accept my thanks, kind patrons!) is a delightful address to the audience about the musical life. With crisp diction from Dennis and some lovely wind playing, it came across as an 18th century precursor of Abba’s Thank You For The Music.

The Bach in question was Carl Philip Emmanuel, son of J S Bach, a composer more revered in his day than he probably is now, and a trailblazer of his time. That boldness was audible from the start under Whelan in a first movement of his Symphony in F that is more about rhythm and dynamics than tunes, especially in the string parts, with what melody there is lying with the winds. After a brief slow movement, the violins regained the upper hand in the bright finale.

There were wonderfully balanced forces on stage for that work, and for the Haydn symphony, No 102, that ended the concert when the 22 strings (six in the first and second fiddles, four each of violas and cellos and two basses) were joined by four pairs of wind instruments and two natural trumpets. The singular voice was that of Louise Goodwin behind the timpani, in a score that gave the percussionist very little time to sit on her hands.

Throughout the piece she was providing crucial punctuation in a work that is Haydn at the absolute zenith of his powers as an orchestrator, full of variety in its combinations of instruments and ear-catching voicings. After what might be called a book-keeper’s opening bar – there was a distinct double-entry – the musicians responded with enthusiasm and precision to Whelan’s clear direction.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Anna Dennis

Lammermuir: BBC SSO/Whelan

St Mary’s Church, Haddington

The former SCO principal bassoonist Peter Whelan is forging a formidable reputation as a conductor, not just with his own group Ensemble Marsyas, but with a growing number of orchestras that recognise the spark he brings to the podium. The coming season adds to his conquests a Vivaldi opera the Royal Opera House and a guest appearance in Finland with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

On Saturday, Whelan took charge of the BBC SSO in a programme that reinforced his natural affinity with the clinical panache of the Classical symphony and the ultra-fine sensitivity of Benjamin Britten.

He began with Haydn, and the joyous adventuring of the 1760s’ Symphony No 35 in B flat. It features the composer in a mood of relaxed excitability, and in this performance, as rhythmically taut as it was expressively supple, Whelan allowed its myriad surprises to surface gleefully within a framework of logic and symmetry. 

The SSO horns made light work of Haydn’s stratospheric demands. The strings evoked a warmth that only once – in the exposed violin melodies of the Andante – seemed to waver, perhaps due to the players’ continued social distancing. The curt ending, a kind of “that’s all folks” dismissal, was entirely in keeping with the tempered humour Whelan elicited from its four movements.

Britten’s 1958 Nocturne for tenor and small orchestra, written as a companion piece to the more familiar Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and dedicated to Alma Mahler, transported us into a giddy world of dreams as expressed through selected texts from Shelley, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare. 

Tenor Joshua Ellicott expressed Britten’s continuous sequence exquisitely and intimately, the penetrating purity of his voice capable of harnessing intense passion as well as serene mysticism, and everything in between. The result was a performance of compelling poeticism and powerfully controlled tension, further enhanced by the strings’ gossamer precision and evocative wind solos.

Mozart’s popular Symphony No 40, cheeriness in a minor key, gave a final pleasing symmetry to this programme. It was fast and fearless, with just an occasional blurring of the edges in these generous ecclesiastical acoustics. As in the Haydn, Whelan revealed a willingness to hand much of the responsibility to the players, economic in his gestures, but always at hand to bring down a decisive beat and keep the outer skin firmly in place. 

There was real chemistry in this performance. The SSO should further this conductor relationship.

Ken Walton

SCO / Whelan / Bray

Perth Concert Hall

It’s easy to see why Guadeloupe-born composer Joseph Boulogne, known also as Chevalier de Saint-George once he had inherited his plantation-owning father’s title, was so popular in his day, even more so in certain circles than the slightly younger Mozart. The overture to his one surviving opera, L’Amant Anonyme, is to 18th century Classicism what fine porcelain is to ceramics: delicate, translucent and well-proportioned.

It’s the opener in a chic Mozart-centric programme filmed in Perth Concert Hall by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conducted by former SCO principal bassoonist Peter Whelan, the common link between Boulogne and Mozart being that they briefly shared lodgings in Paris.  

Cast in three short sections, there is more than symphonic pretence to this overture, existing successfully on its own as a concert piece. Whelan, directing from the harpsichord, engages at once with its elegant precision and cool-headed elan. The opening section is the epitome of finesse and le bon goût. But it’s in the central slower section where Whelan’s unassuming mastery comes to the fore, his responsive control of the textures drawing the ear to what matters, gently suppressing what doesn’t. Boulogne was as masterful a swordsman as a composer, we are told, which echoes true in the artful cut and thrust of the overture’s dizzy conclusion.

Mozart was well-known for his orchestral updates of Handel, notably the “Mozart version” of Messiah. But he also turned his hand to Handel’s pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, the overture of which throws an unlikely brace of clarinets into the limelight. 

It’s to Maximiliano Martin’s and William Stafford’s enormous credit that they found the exactness and versatility necessary to headline this vivacious performance with such stylistic conviction. That the overture ends on an imperfect cadence – there is, by definition, more to come – presents a curious, though some might argue theatrical, hiatus. 

Martin also plays a key role in the aria “Parti, parto ma tu ben mio” from Mozart’s late opera La clemenza di Tito, duetting mellifluously with the golden mezzo soprano of Katie Bray. Hers is a voice that combines the heightened thrills of the soprano with the soulful pungency of the lower tessitura. And where this impassioned aria – Sesto’s blind, reckless love overruling common sense – displays Bray’s range of emotional heat, what follows, the Laudamus Te from Mozart’s Mass in C minor, is a brilliant showpiece for an exceptional singer.   

Mozart’s Linz Symphony is, to some extent, a representation of his entire personality. Whelan takes every opportunity to demonstrate that, from the majestic poise of the opening movement, through the lyrical charm of the Andante and the simple elegance of the Menuetto to the gleeful, easeful finality of the closing Presto. No need for over-prescriptive hand gestures; the sheer joy communicated by Whelan’s facial expressions convey all that’s required to secure a vintage SCO performance. Classy to the last.
Ken Walton

Available to view via www.sco.org.uk