Tag Archives: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

The Comic Opera Man

Composer Jonathan Dove talks to KEITH BRUCE about Flight and a possible Scots premiere for his newest work

Although American Jake Heggie, less than two years his junior, out-scores him internationally, on this side of the Atlantic composer Jonathan Dove is the most produced contemporary opera composer of his generation.

Among performers, and some directors, that status might come with airs and graces, and even diva-like behaviour. Composers? Not so much.

So when the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s head of opera studies Philip White requested a reduced score of one of Dove’s biggest hits, Flight, to meet the strictures of social distancing in the pit of the New Athenaeum Theatre in Glasgow during the pandemic, the composer immediately sat down and re-wrote his work for 19 players.

In the event, further restrictions made it impossible to stage the production at all until earlier this month, when it happened to coincide with the RSNO and theatre company Visible Fictions taking a newer Dove work, Gaspard’s Foxtrot, setting the children’s stories of Zeb Soanes, out on the road to primary schools as well as presenting it on the orchestra’s digital platform.

There, in a nutshell, was the range of Jonathan Dove’s work for the stage, and the main ingredients of his compositional life, if Scots music-lovers were minded to explore it, although his full catalogue stretches into many other areas of orchestral and chamber music, as well as songs.

“I am always happiest if I have an opera project on the go or on the horizon,” he told me on the day James Bonas’s production of Flight at the RCS finally opened. “I describe myself as a musical story-teller, even when it is not an opera, like Gaspard’s Foxtrot with Zeb Soanes and the RSNO.

“The RSNO co-commissioned it and they’ve done a lot with it. Writing songs and choral pieces is also story-telling, but it is a Peter and the Wolf kind of piece – that is very obviously the model.”

As for Flight, it is a work that has been performed all over the world since 1998, with Scottish Opera’s adapting an Opera Holland Park staging in 2018.

Rosalind Dobson as The Controller in Flight at RCS, picture by Robert McFadzean

“There have been two productions this year in the US alone, one in Utah and one in Dallas, and over the years people have asked for a slim down version, so I knew there was some demand for that. But I hadn’t had time and I didn’t want anyone else to do it, because I didn’t trust them to do it well.

“I came to Glasgow specifically to hear if the new orchestration works, and I think it helps that it is a bit leaner for young voices. I am obviously very pleased that Flight is seen in conservatoires. There is something for every voice type in it: a stratospheric soprano, a lyric soprano, a counter tenor and a bass alongside tenor, baritone and mezzo-soprano.

“It is quite a good showcase, although that wasn’t what I was thinking when I wrote it. For me the airport was a sort of microcosm of a community. But you get know these people but you also get to hear them singing in quite a lot of states and moods, so you can hear what people can do.”

Lindsay Johnson as Minskwoman in RCS Flight

Making the reduced version of the orchestral score took Dove back to his own beginnings as an opera composer, and to memories of the man who was a mentor in the process, director Graham Vick, who died last summer after contracting Covid-19.

“A very important part of my musical education in my twenties was re-scoring masterpieces of the operatic repertoire for his touring company. I rescored La Cenerentola, The Magic Flute, Falstaff, La boheme and The Ring for orchestras of between 15 and 18 players.

“Graham was a shockingly late victim of the pandemic, just when you thought the world was getting safer. It was really only after he died that I saw clearly how much he had changed my life. Re-scoring masterpieces of the repertoire and seeing him direct them was an amazing education.

“The most important experience was one particular production, an Opera North outreach project with West Side Story in a disused cotton-mill. That production introduced me to so many things. At that point I was assistant chorus-master at Glyndebourne, but the experience of working with 200 people from the community in that production was a revelation – how hungry they were for it.

“That was very different from working with a professional opera chorus – they’ve trained for that, they know that they can do it. That show introduced me to community opera, and to site-specific work and promenade performance. At that moment I never wanted to see another proscenium-arch production, because it was so much more involving.”

If Dove has now rowed back from that position it was not before he had taken the lessons of Vick’s work and applied it to his own practice – a journey that led to his breakthrough opera.

“I wondered what it would be like if the community cast were telling their own story and not a New York story. Around the same time, Glyndebourne was thinking about an opera involving a couple of school and I said: ‘Why not involve a whole town?’ So we did that in Hastings with about 200 people, including any musicians and performers that wanted to be in it. There was the Boys Brigade band, there was a symphony orchestra, there was a yodelling harmonica player and Morris dancers.

“Another one followed in Ashford where there was an accordion club and a guitar orchestra and a rock band, and then one in Peterborough, and I found things for them all to do, and it always felt like the most unquestionably worthwhile thing that I was doing.

“The total experience of everyone in it, and what they learned from it – that was my road to Damascus experience. Those three community operas for Glyndebourne led directly to them commissioning Flight, which is still the work of mine that people most often tell me that they have seen.

“So it was from Graham I got the belief in opera as a medium whose importance should not be restricted to opera houses: that mission that opera is for everyone. He was a unique spirit.”

The relationship with the director continued, notably with 2012’s adaptation of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream for Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company. Dove’s other operas have drawn on classic novels (Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), the troubled life of Buzz Aldrin (Man on the Moon) and the death of Princess Diana.

Parallel with those have been the works for young people, from Tobias and the Angel in 1999, via The Adventures of Pinocchio in 2007 to 2015’s The Monster in the Maze, based on the classical tale of Theseus and the Minotaur and created in partnership with conductor Sir Simon Rattle.

“It is the opera of mine that was been translated most. It was a co-commission between the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Aix festival, so there were three productions just weeks apart, all conducted by Simon Rattle, in German, English and French.

“It was also done in Taiwan in Cantonese and Taiwanese and I couldn’t get to that, but I have seen it in Swedish, in Portuguese in Lisbon and in Catalan in Barcelona, where it has now been done three times.”

The Dove children’s opera currently on his desk is for Zurich, based on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, with Act 1 already completed.

Philip White’s students at the Conservatoire staged 2015’s post-Apocalypse The Day After as a sort of companion piece to the Scottish Opera Flight four years ago, and Dove’s most recent work for an adult audience, Marx in London, was first seen in Bonn and could be destined for a Scottish outing soon.

“Marx in London was the idea of director Jurgen Weber, who had directed an amazing production of an opera of mine, Swanhunter, written for an intended audience of teenagers. His idea was that Marx’s life was like a farce and that it would make a good comic opera.”

With a libretto by Charles Hart, whose past work includes Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, Marx in London premiered at the end of 2018, when it was co-produced by Scottish Opera. At the time there was speculation that the production might be seen in Scotland in 2020, and if it is still on the cards, Dove cannot confirm.

“Scottish Opera have made a financial commitment so it would be natural if they were the first to do it here,” he says. “There are still hopes that it will be staged in the not too distant future.”

Flight 

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow

Approaching a quarter century ago, the premise of the airport-set Flight by composer Jonathan Dove and librettist April de Angelis – a comic opera inspired by the plight of an Iranian refugee who lived for years in Paris Charles de Gaulle – was bold. When it was most recently seen in Glasgow, in Scottish Opera’s 2018 staging, it was an established contemporary classic.

This much-delayed RCS version, with a cast that, doubling five of the roles, draws on three year-groups of students whose studies have been interrupted by the pandemic – some of them now graduated – arrives at a time when Europe has a new refugee crisis and the notion of two of the characters possibly embarking on a new life in Minsk, the capital of Russia-aligned Belarus, has an unintended resonance.

Whether we are in the precise here-and-now is hard to say. Those with more fashion nous than myself might have a precise view on the costuming. The dramatic concrete architecture of the suggested concourse in Tom Paris’s design is certainly drawn from recent airport construction, but the “space age” instruments visible in the control tower have a retro look and the stratospheric soprano Controller herself – Rosalind Dodson in this cast – prefaces her announcements with a few chimes on a glockenspiel, like the Rydell High School secretary in Grease.

Director James Bonas delights in all the details of his staging, in the luggage and the drinks trolley, magazines and make-up, and a disturbingly realistic puppet new-born, but never loses sight of the bigger picture – the classic one of a handful of well-drawn characters confined in a dramatic space.

The weird distant relationship between the Controller and the Refugee (counter-tenor Matt Paine) is particularly well drawn, while Claudia Haussmann and Cameron Mitchell swiftly establish the comic potential of Tina and Bill’s rocky marriage, paralleled by the more hedonistic attitude of the Steward (Jonathan Forbes Kennedy) and Stewardess (Charlotte Richardson).

There is lots of playing with stereotypes by Dove and de Angelis and these young singers are particularly successful in catching the cliches in the roles of the women, the quartet of female passengers completed by Polish mezzo Wiktoria Wizner as a sultry, if stood-up, fiancée, and Scots mezzo Lindsay Grace Johnson following her Mutter in Hansel und Gretel with the infant-producing Minskwoman.

In this cast, completed by baritones Toki Hamano as Minskman and Eoin Foran as the Immigration Officer, there is not a weak link in vocal performance, and while individual arias are all secure and characterful, even when technically demanding, it is the ensemble work that persists in the mind. These young people may not have been studying together, and some now work far away, but they have come together as a coherent company that more than matches the professional performance we saw four years ago, and that goes for their gestural and collective movement as well as their singing.

Dove’s score is terrifically colourful, in its clever depiction of human reaction to stress as much as in the broader scenic depiction of storm and dawn, and the brand new reduced orchestration he has made for this production is superbly performed by the pit orchestra – actually 30 rather than the 19 Covid restrictions at one time demanded – under conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren. His tempi are brisk, but not a detail of the score was lost, and the three percussionists should have their own special mention.

Further performances March 14, 16 and 18.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Robert McFadzean/RCS shows Lindsay Johnson as Minskwoman

Hansel und Gretel

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Those fortunate enough to be in the few distanced audience seats for one of the four performances of Stephen Lawless’s captivating production of Humperdinck’s dark Yuletide confection can count themselves very lucky indeed.

The first live show for a present audience from the Conservatoire’s opera department in nearly two years ropes in many students and younger people from elsewhere in the institution to deliver a version of the story that is full of resonant contemporary detail and slapstick panto fun. It is also superbly sung by everyone involved, and played (in Derek Clark’s reduced orchestration) by a pit band under Adam Hickox – every bit the showcase for young talent across all disciplines that it should be.

The promise of what is to come is encapsulated in designer Adrian Linford’s front-cloth: a German Christmas card of a canal-side scene that includes elements of the Glasgow skyline and a pastiche of Banksy’s graffiti art, sweeping a dead robin out of sight. The whole show is bracketed by the shuffle of a paper-cup carrying pan-handler across the stage – his return at the end, as the reunited family prepare to tuck into a meal of roast Witch, is the sting in the tale.

The Mother here, sung by Lindsay Grace Johnson on opening night, is a harassed NHS worker, struggling to feed her children in a damp-walled flat. “Lord God, send us money, I’ve nothing to live on,” as the surtitles have it, seems pertinently apt. The Witch – tenor Cameron Mitchell, in pink-wigged buxom drag, is TV chef Rosina Leckermaul, promoting her new book, Kochen mit Kindren (Cooking with Children).

The Sandman – a lovely clear-toned Karla Grant – presides over a tableau vivant Nativity that could be the one that can be seen in the city’s George Square but is rather more beautiful, while the Dew Fairy (Marie Cayeux) guzzles shots in a spangly gold mini-dress, having lost a shoe, dragging a traffic cone.

While far from lavish, the staging is full of meaningful detail in every scene, from home with its coin electricity meter and school portraits, through the woods and the gingerbread house, to the Witch’s lair – half TV studio kitchen, half butchering operating theatre. There were a couple of accidental prop mishaps and some sticky and noisy scene-changing on the first night, but all were professionally coped with.

German mezzo Ascelina Klee has a huge voice which sometimes disturbed the balance on stage, but she and Spanish soprano Elena Garrido Madrona are a winning partnership as Hansel and Gretel in performances full of compatible physicality. The role of Father is also double-cast and Jonathan Forbes Kennedy brought a nice bonhomie to counterpoint the grim reality elsewhere.

With an onstage Salvation Army band opening the score, some fine solo playing as well as ensemble from the orchestra, and the women’s chorus singing from the circle in Act 3, the production is full of musical riches as well. If the pandemic rule changes have made it possible for the RCS to release more seats for sale for the second half of its short run, this is a show not to miss.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Robert McFadzean

RSNO / Kopatchinskaja

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The thought occurred at the end of this adventurous contribution to the cultural programme around COP26 that it is only in very recent times that such an event has been likely to appear on the schedule of the musicians of Scotland’s national orchestra once again. Before that old hands might wistfully recall the SNO’s Musica Nova seasons at the University of Glasgow for any point of comparison.

The architect and soloist of the programme, Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, will return to play the Stravinsky Violin Concerto with the RSNO in February, but here she was leading a chamber ensemble of RSNO players, with a choir of singers from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland directed by Tim Dean and groups of trombone and double bass students, also from the Conservatoire.

The sequence of music Kopatchinskaja had the RSNO musicians play required a range of talents far beyond their stringed instrument skills, with a great deal of percussion and performance, bowing of wine glasses and a final, rather moving procession of metronomes and night lights, slowly silenced and extinguished.

That conclusion was perhaps the clearest evocation of the environmental crisis that inspired it. More broadly, this Dies Irae, as the violinist entitled the whole evening, was a statement of opposition to the powerful as much as faith in God or humanity. Interleaving movements from the baroque pictures of Franz Biber’s Battalia with George Crumb’s anti-Vietnam War Black Angels was a colourful enough beginning, but that was only a taste of what was to come.

Re-purposing more early music in Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus motet and John Dowland’s Lachrimae Antiquae Novae on the way, and with those seven trombones prowling the auditorium, the culmination of the evening was Russian Galina Ustwolskaja’s Komposition No.2.

The only woman in Shostakovich’s composition class in her youth, UIstwolskaja lived until the first decade of the new millennium and wrote this, one her most extreme works, in the early 1970s, scored for eight double basses, piano and a large wooden box to be struck with hammers. Kopatchinskaja forsook her fiddle to play the latter, which had been borne onto the stage like a coffin.

The piece is subtitled Dies Irae, but Ustwolskaja’s precise relationship with the Christian faith, during and after the Soviet era, seems unclear. That we were to hear in it a premonition of the end of days was made explicit in the RCS singers following it with Gregorian chant of the Latin, and the entry of all the participants with those randomly clicking metronomes and flickering lights.

Sponsored by isio.

Keith Bruce

Vital Signs of the Planet

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

I am unconvinced that it added up as a concert programme, but there were some fine ingredients in the contribution of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to COP26 in Glasgow.

Created in partnership with the Global Climate Uprising Festival invented by the LakeArts Foundation of the US, and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, it was a showcase for a huge student orchestra of some 110 players under the baton of conductor Emil de Cou, and for half a dozen eloquent young activists from Africa, South America and Scotland whose testimonies separated the musical items.

Those young people would not be born when the first UN “Earth Summit” was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. A film from that event prefaced this one, and prompted the thought that the youth of that era are the generation now being berated for their lack of action on the environmental crisis.

Bannockburn’s Natalie Sinclair, in her role as a National Geographic Explorer, gave an account of her research into whale song as the first of the spoken contributions, after Scots violinist Andrea Gajic was the soloist in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Accompanied by a string orchestra from within the huge forces on stage, it was a performance that grew in rhythmic assurance as the year unfolded, the hesitancy of Autumn more or less dispatched by Winter.

The third movement of Debussy’s La Mer and the broad-palette orchestration of the third movement of the Sinfonia Antartica by Ralph Vaughan Williams gave rein to the full forces on stage, when there were impressive contributions from horns, brass and on the hall’s digital organ.

The revelation of the programme, however, was  a piece the conductor had brought with him. Advent, by film composer Michael Giacchino, was commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moonlanding. Post-graduate student Claire Lumsden had the starring role here with the wordless soprano solo throughout the work.

It was an evening where young Scots women like her were consistently in the spotlight. At its start a small group of pipes and drums had been notable for the precision and power percussion of its smallest, and sole female, member, and at its end pop star Natasha Bedingfield’s re-written and fully orchestrated version of her hit Unwritten was distinguished by the backing vocals of Rachel Lightbody, Cariss Crosbie and Emilie Boyd, collectively known as Little Acres.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Claire Lumsden

Passing The Baton

Charisma, not ego, makes a great conductor. New RCS professor, Martyn Brabbins, tells KEN WALTON how he plans to impart that message

Wilhelm Furtwangler defined the art of conducting as “the sensualisation of the spiritual and the spritualisation of the sensual”. Herbert von Karajan reckoned, like Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God”, that “something just comes, and it’s the grace of the moment”. Then there’s ego. “Of course I’m not modest,” asserted Bernard Haitink. “If I were, I wouldn’t be a conductor!”

These particular exemplars belong mostly to a bygone era, the youngest, Haitink, having only just retired in 2020 while in his nineties. The world of conducting is becoming increasingly democratised. The untouchable demigods are all but extinct. If not yet completely, they will surely be once Covid is licked. 

It’s within this seam of change that Martyn Brabbins, musical director of English National Opera and long associated with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (associate principal conductor, 1994-2005), is turning his attention to tomorrow’s professionals. “There’s no place for the dictator,” he believes. “I like it when people’s egos are under control, where there’re able to be a decent human being and collaborate well with the players in front of them.”

As the newly appointed visiting professor of conducting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, expect him to impress such values on the young hopefuls he takes under his wings. Well-respected by the many major orchestras he has conducted around the world, Brabbins practises exactly what he preaches. Musicians admire him for his slick musical efficacy and no-nonsense efficiency. He knows the score – literally. When orchestras are hit by last-minute conductor call-offs and difficult repertoire needs rescuing, the call invariably goes out: Get Brabbins! 

This is not his first association with the RCS. He tutored there when it first began offering conducting courses in the early Noughties. Why come back? “The time is right”, says the 61-year-old, whose own career has taken him from studies in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and winning the 1988 Leeds Conductors’ Competition, to being one of the busiest international conductors on the planet.  

Besides his hectic pivotal role at ENO, he is artistic advisor to the Huddersfield Choral Society, a visiting  professor at the Royal College of Music, globe-trots regularly (or did so before the pandemic), and is a ubiquitous presence with the UK’s BBC orchestras, especially at the annual BBC Proms.

“I feel I’m in a much better place to impart useful stuff to aspiring conductors compared to how I was 15 years ago,” he explains. “I’ve done a lot of teaching, at the RCM in London, in Orkney [directing the annual conducting courses run in tandem with the St Magnus Festival], and many other bits in between. 

“Also, the RCS department is thriving. They’ve had some real successes and they’ve got the new Leverhulme Fellows and a very good Masters course which means the Conservatoire attracts some high level emerging conductors.” Alumni include Ryan Bancroft (principal conductor, BBC National Orchestra of Wales), Kerem Hasan (chief conductor, Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck) and Jessica Cottis (international freelance and principal conductor, Glasgow New Music Expedition). 

RCS alumni Jessica Cottis conducts the Queensland Symphony Orchestra


Equally significant in influencing Brabbins’ decision to return is Michael Bawtree’s appointment last September as administrative head of the department. “In order to make things work you need someone on the ground with whom you have a strong relationship and trust. Michael’s made the whole thing very quickly his own and it’s shaping up in a very positive way,” says Brabbins. 

That’s all good and well, but what of the reality of giving these students an “instrument” to practise on? Violinists have their fiddles, flautists have their flutes, but how do you provide wannabe conductors with their very own symphony orchestra? 

There will, of course, be opportunities for hands-on experience with the RCS’s own symphony orchestra. That, in itself, has encouraged Brabbins to broaden his involvement with the Conservatoire. “I felt I ought to be a presence for the whole Conservatoire if I could be,” he explains. “So we’ve agreed that, once a year, I will do a concert with the student orchestra, and integrate some of the conducting students in the rehearsal process. The most rewarding and interesting bit of teaching conducting is when you have an orchestra at hand.”

More importantly, Brabbins’ has enormous clout with Glasgow’s professional orchestras, and he’s making full use of it. “I’ve already had very good conversations with the SSO,” he reveals, with the intention of making that relationship beyond what it has been over the past 15 years. “We want to achieve a really good integration, and both sides need to get more from that relationship,  ensuring that the orchestra, its management and players have at least some kind of say in who’s chosen by the Conservatoire to be a Fellow. That creates a real sense of ownership.”

It doesn’t stop there. Brabbins has also been speaking to RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie “so we can embrace the RSNO in all this”. He’s also held talks with Gregory Batsleer, chorus master of the RSNO and SCO, about how to build in experience of choir conducting.  

“Gregory feels there’s a big hole, in that many orchestral conductors really don’t have much idea how to approach amateur choruses, and let’s face it, we have a lot of very good amateur choruses in this country. They are an integral part of our musical fabric. 

“Get all that in place, do it well, and we’re on course to making Glasgow a leading conducting hub,” he predicts. “My students at the RCM don’t get that level of opportunity.”

All of which is worthless without the right calibre of student, and it’s here that Brabbins’ instinct for the future of the conducting profession really matters. “Post-Covid, things won’t get back to the way they were, and maybe that’s a good thing,” he argues. 

“When I was with the BBC Philharmonic last year, chatting to the principal clarinettist, he said: ‘yeah, it’s been wonderful to be shopping local’. He was genuinely pleased that the orchestra, by necessity, had been using UK-based conductors. Maybe musical culture will have to change now, and there won’t be this passionate desire by British orchestras always to seek the next young foreign conductor.”

But even if that does open up more opportunities, it still requires finding the right set of skills for today’s purposes. What does Brabbins look for in his potential recruits? “Some things never change,” he believes. “There are many essentials, but no two people will have the entire combination of these essentials. So when you’re selecting you have to weigh up the strengths. 

“There are obvious things, like musical awareness and musical excellence. I remember talking to [Jorma] Panula, the famous Finnish conducting teacher, and his first criteria is that the conductor is a virtuoso, a top class performer. That’s one way of looking at it and an interesting thing to have in your back pocket, but maybe not as crucial as he might think. Charisma, though, is hugely important. It comes in very different guises, but there has to be a very clear and passionate musical desire, a real personality, a real wish to make music in a certain way.” 

The days of great dictators are gone, he reiterates. “There has to be a willingness to collaborate. I’ve just been rehearsing the strings here in Cardiff, and you’re to-ing and fro-ing all the time.” That from someone who knows his stuff, gets the results he wants, and always gets asked back.