February 2009 Preview

Highlights of the coming month in the Classical and Opera worlds

1 February 2009

Bryn TerfelAs orchestras and opera companies start to announce their 2009-10 seasons, it's interesting to observe how the credit crunch is impacting on the opera and classical worlds. The two WNOs – Welsh National Opera and Washington National Opera – have both gone for box office safety, with the cancellation of the Washington Ring and a warhorse-heavy season in Cardiff, and I think we can expect more of the same as the rest of the world's houses start to reveal their plans.

Still, ticket sales for the UK's opera companies and concert halls were up in the last quarter of 2008, and many events continue to sell out, including the Kirov's current visit to the Barbican and the Royal Opera's forthcoming production of The Flying Dutchman with Bryn Terfel.

Other less high-profile things also demand our attention this month, though. Jonathan Miller's return to ENO after a long absence for a new La boheme is certainly intriguing, and Ben Heppner's recital at the Barbican on 6 February is full of promise. The Met's broadcasts to UK cinemas continue on 7 February, with Netrebko and Villazon set to appear in Lucia di Lammermoor, and for lighter fare it's worth exploring Stephen Sondheim's early musical Saturday Night, which appears at the Jermyn Theatre on 13 February with Helena Blackman.

Rosalind Plowright and Nelly Miricioiu pair up on 15 February at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur with the Chelsea Opera Group, while Opera North's annual visit to Sadler's Wells brings us the opportunity to see two related Gershwin musicals, Of Thee I Sing and its sequel Let 'Em Eat Cake, within the space of a couple of days between 19 and 21 February. Sir Colin Davis joins the LSO to conduct and record Berlioz's Te Deum on 22 and 23 February, and those with a taste for large-scale arena opera productions might enjoy the return of Raymond Gubbay's Carmen to the Royal Albert Hall on 26 February.

So while times may be hard, there's plenty to see in London at the moment, and all of it deserves support. When other orchestras and opera companies announce their plans for next year, however, we'll know whether the uncertain economy is going to mean a bleaker future.

By Dominic McHugh, Editor

Hugo Shirley, Deputy Editor

Zubin MehtaThe Royal Opera's new production of Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer opens with – we all hope – Bryn Terfel in the title role on 23 February. Having enjoyed Tim Albery's economical and terse ENO production of Boris Godunov,it will be interesting to see what he makes of Wagner's breakthrough drama, presented in its one act version. It's also difficult not to be excited by the prospect of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra bringing Bruckner's unfinished Ninth Symphony to the RFH; on a good night, there's still no orchestra like them in this repertoire (19 February, Zubin Mehta conducts). There's some interesting programming from the BBC Symphony Orchestra later in the month, too, when they present a fascinating fin-de-siècle triptych in Salome's 'Dance of the Seven Veils', Ravel's La valse and the rarely heard ballet by Florent Schmitt, La tragédie de Salomé. The programme is completed by Chopin's second piano concerto with Nelson Freire (at the Barbican, 27 February).

Stephen Graham, Contemporary Music Editor

Gerald Finley in Doctor AtomicIn February a whole host of contemporary music events deserve attention. On the seventh, the Barbican hosts another Total Immersion Day, this time focusing on the glorious spectral music of Tristan Murail. The Scottish Ensemble perform a varied programme at the Wigmore Hall on the eleventh that includes Stravinsky's Apollo and Mozart's Divertimento in F K138, with Colin Currie taking the role of soloist in the new concerto for marimba and strings Now you hear me, now you don't, from the Austrian composer Kurt Schwertsik.

Elsewhere there's a stunning programme of new and recent music celebrating the bicentennial of the publishing house Ricordi in King's Place on the twenty-fourth, where pieces by Messiaen, Dusapin, Hind, Fujikura, Sciarrino and Eötvös will be performed by the always strong Irish group the Fidelio Trio. Dr. Atomic, John Adams most recent opera, transfers to the Coliseum from the Met on the twenty-fifth, with Gerald Finley reprising the role of Robert Oppenheimer. It should be unmissable.

For anyone interested in experimental music, the festival taking place from the second to the sixth at Battersea Arts Centre, New Year, New Sounds, should prove fascinating. It boasts sets from ensembles including John Butcher, Steve Beresford, the Bohman Brothers (the curators), Alan Tomlinson, and Martin Speake, amongst others. Tickets are only five pounds for each event.

Agnes Kory, Co-Founder

Zubin MehtaSome 40 or so years ago violinist Pinchas Zuckerman was one of the high calibre young star musicians who brought excitement with their individual and collaborative performances to London's music life. Although they were hugely promising in their own fields, later several of them explored additional channels. In due course, pianists Barenboim and Ashkenazy became successful conductors, violinist Itzak Perlman experimented with some singing - I heard him as the jailer in Tosca - and acting, and Zuckerman too took up conducting. I am looking forward to his Royal Festival Hall concert on 2 February with the Royal Philharmonic orchestra and I am wondering if the double function of violin playing and conducting will strengthen or weaken the individual components.

Handel's Acis and Galatea is one of my favourite works since I studied it - and fell for the monster Polyphemus with a beautiful bass voice - in the Budapest music conservatoire some 50 years ago. In the evening of 14 February it will be performed in the Wigmore Hall, preceded by Handel's earlier take on the subject (Aci, Galatea a Polifemo) in the afternoon. I will be there.

And I am looking forward to Dr Atomic, John Adams' opera, at English National Opera (from 25 February) although possibly for an odd reason: Teller, one of the protagonists in the opera (as in real life), was Hungarian and I am delighted that the fine bass Brindley Sherratt will sing the part.

Delia Casadei

Daniel BarenboimIf you have the time and money, you could do worse than sampling La Scala's production of Tristan and Isolde (starting on 7 February), featuring the stage design of Patrice Chéreau — whose groundbreaking Ring Cycle of 1976 made history — and no-less than Daniel Barenboim on the conductor's podium. If your resources are slightly more limited, then Korngold's Die tote Stadt, continuing at the Royal Opera House, makes for an intriguing bill. Written when Korngold was only twenty-two, this disturbing tale of loss and obsession is the expressionistic début of a man who, interestingly, went on to write some of Hollywood's most luscious film-scores in the 1940s. I am also curious about the BBC Concert Orchestra's Music and Chance evening (Queen Elizabeth Hall, 17 February), featuring pieces that do not follow any logic but that of the dice game. Top of the bill is a rare performance of Terry Riley's In C, holy bible of the minimalists and a true endurance test for listeners (you have to hear it to believe it).

Claudine Nightingale, Early Music Specialist

Christian CurnynMy highlight for February has to be the Valentine-inspired performances of John Blow's masque Venus and Adonis by the innovative group Transition_Opera. Transition play on period instruments but combine this with new visual technology, which if nothing else, promises an evening of fresh interpretation. A selection of love songs from Blow and his contemporaries will also feature. Having discovered Wilton's Music Hall (the venue for this project) only very recently, it is a chance to see another performance at the world's last surviving and oldest grand music hall that I most look forward to. Hailed as 'London's most beautiful 'lost' theatre', it truly is a cultural gem of the East End, and bound to be a magical venue for this musical project.  (Wilton's Music Hall, 11-14 February, 7.30pm).

Mike Reynolds

Mozart, Wagner and Korngold are my own February highlights: all in the opera house and all, I hope, offering brand new perspectives on the genre (Korngold) or new interpretations of iconic pieces.

Rebecca Evans, WNO's CountessToo long an absence from The Marriage of Figaro makes me feel nervy – it is a work I simply have to see regularly, if only to marvel again at the perfect balance of form and content that Mozart achieved with his folle journée set to some of the most perfect opera music ever written. I saw Welsh National Opera's last production, set in an Almaviva house made largely of brown corrugated paper, and felt it constrained rather than illuminated or freed the action. Their new production is shared with the Liceu in Barcelona, where it has opened to mixed reviews, but having seen the maquettes for scenery and costumes, I have to say it ought to look absolutely gorgeous. It has been updated to a sort of art deco 1930s setting and the onstage space created by set designer Paco Azorin is simply ravishing. In Barcelona it was the musical values that were most criticised: with a new conductor (Michael Hofstetter) and a new Countess (Rebecca Evans) I live in hope. WNO's new Figaro premieres at the Wales Millenium Centre on 7 February.

It will be a shorter hop to see two operas at Covent Garden – Korngold's Die tote Stadt and Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, the latter in a new production by Tim Albery that promises great things. I have long wanted to see a production of the Korngold, a work that the whole operatic world acclaimed when it premiered in 1920 (just when Berg was in the middle of composing Wozzeck). It may not be a masterpiece and I gather that director Willy Decker is not content to let the work speak for itself, but it's an essential bit of opera-going. As for the Dutchman, with Bryn Terfel and Anja Kampe in the no-interval version under Marc Albrecht's baton, I can't wait. The last ROH production was a distinctly choppy experience, with two intervals and a very unidiomatic Simone Young at the helm: this promises to be completely different.

Marina Romani

Sir John Eliot GardinerKings Place is definitely the place where to look for hybrid musical realizations. From 11 to 14 February, a project titled 'Transformations: Words and Music' proposes a thematic combination of different art forms. Protagonists of the four nights of performance will be postgraduate Guildhall musicians, tenor John Mark Ainsley, pianist Ian Burnside, and actress Harriet Walter. These artists will join their forces to present a selection of poems and musical pieces (remarkably Thomas Hardy's compositions set to music by Gerald's Finzi in his 'A Young Man's Exhortation'). The performances' leitmotifs will be tshe experiences of aging and war.

Additional highlights for me this month include a Beethoven Cycle at the Barbican (4 and 17 February). Under Sir John Eliot Gardiner's baton, the London Symphony Orchestra and pianist Maria João Pires will perform a selection of symphonies and piano concertos - among them, symphonies No 4, 5 and 7.

A suggestion for a different experiencing of music comes from the London Symphony Orchestra at LSO St Luke's. On February 28 an evening of discussion on great orchestral works will take place, chaired by Alan Rusbridger, musician and Guardian editor. The event is free (although booking is highly recommended) and seems like an inspiring opportunity to be involved in the musical debate, together with composers and field specialists.

John Woods

Richard GoodeIt could easily go unnoticed when perusing the schedules, but one of the month's highlights is surely Richard Goode's piano recital at Wigmore Hall on 25 February at 7.30pm. His playing has always been characterised by warmth, beautiful musicianship and a certain tasteful refinement which nevertheless always stays the right side of prissy. He is seldom experimental with his programmes, yet his playing is always at the highest level. This concert of his core repertoire should see him at his best, featuring Bach and Chopin, and closing with Schubert's B-flat major sonata D.960. His handling of Schubert's long-ranging form is likely to be revelatory. 

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