I was flattered and quite frankly rather astonished when Handel House invited me to join them for their 2015-16 Talent Scheme launch event on 21 September (to watch, not to participate, obviously). Every year they take on half a dozen scarily talented young musicians who specialise in Baroque music and provide them with a space to develop their skills with masterclasses, performance opportunities and other guidance.
It’s still a very new initiative – last year was the first intake, I believe – but it seems destined to go from strength to strength. As you know, I’m always delighted that the Baroque scene in London (or at least the bits of it I tend to see) are full of young, vibrant performers; so it was wonderful to spend an evening in Handel’s rehearsal room, getting a sneak peek at the new crop of participants, as well as hearing from some of last year’s talent. Here are some of the names you should be looking out for in the future.
We kicked off with the Ensemble in Residence: recorder quartet Block4 (Emily Bannister, Lucy Carr, Katie Cowling and Rosie Land). Well: their instruments were allegedly recorders but they looked like no recorder I’ve ever seen before. Imagine what you might get if Leonardo da Vinci designed a periscope, and that gives you some idea: utterly extraordinary objects. And yet the sound produced was gorgeous: rich and fluting, with an almost medieval grace in the first piece they played, Handel’s Fugue in C Minor.
That was followed by something completely different: Wicked by the Dutch composer Michiel Mensingh (b. 1975). Here the music sounded almost electronic: jagged and staccato, rather like the music that used to be on computer games when I was at school. Block4 pulled it off with aplomb and great skill: there seemed to be almost circular breathing going on at one point. They also perform with normal-looking recorders, of course, but you should definitely look out for these strange wooden contraptions. Quite remarkable. They have a recital on 3 December, showing off their chronological range with music from Caccini to Pärt.
Before we heard from the new intake, we had a couple of performances from participants on last year’s scheme. First up was mezzo Cathy Bell, whom I’d come across by name several times but hadn’t yet heard. Regular readers of this blog will know the kind of voices I enjoy, and she was definitely my kind of mezzo: on the deeper side, with sumptuous dark velvet on the low notes and plenty of colour. To make things even better, she chose to sing Venti turbini from Rinaldo, which meant I started the evening on a delicious bravura high. Such an aria must challenge the musicians just as much as the singer but Bell’s fellow scheme members, Katarzyna Kowalik (on harpsichord) and Elspeth Robertson (on recorder), offered brisk and confident accompaniment. Robertson’s recorder took the place usually occupied by the strings, and the result was rather beautiful, with fluttering notes almost like birdsong setting off the agility of Bell’s voice.
Following this devilish aria, we had a performance by the cellist George Ross. He played a Capriccio in C minor by Giuseppe Maria dall’ Abaco (1710-1805), a Flemish-born Italian cellist and composer who spent about a decade working in London in the mid 18th-century, but whom I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of before. Calm and measured, this capriccio was a striking contrast to Venti turbini, and Ross played with understated intensity, head bowed over the cello, picking out a freshness in the music that worked very well in that intimate space. Indeed, there was an almost magical sense of spontaneity about it, as if he were simply creating the music on the spur of the moment.
After a little talk by Laurence Cummings welcoming the 2015 intake, we moved onto this new crop of talent. The harpsichordist Satoko Doi-Luck (also a composer) got us underway with a Suite in D major by Purcell. Having been somewhat scared off by The Indian Queen, I haven’t listened to much Purcell, but this was delightful: an underlying rhythm that blithely tripped along, overlaid at first with a sequence of lovely rippling notes, smoothly changing pace from one section to the next, and rounding off with a very lively hornpipe. Doi-Luck was absolutely in control, without suppressing the vigour of the piece at all.
As someone whose own musical skills are non-existent, I’m always staggered by how musicians actually create these sounds. Harpsichordists and pianists leave me in awe at the sheer amount of finger-movement that goes into those flowing sweeps of notes, although I was shortly to discover that recorders demand no less dexterity. That realisation came courtesy of Olwen Foulkes, who stepped up next to play Telemann’s Recorder sonata in C major, with Doi-Luck continuing on the harpischord to offer accompaniment. A shimmering opening switched back and forth from adagio to a warbling allegro, delivered at impressively high speed; then giving way to an elegant sicilienne; and finishing off with a vivace that lived up to its name and sounded rather like a nightingale on steroids. Clearly I need to look at Telemann in more detail.
Handel House not only have a Talent Scheme and an Ensemble in Residence, but also a Composer in Residence, which is likewise an annual award. The new composer is Hunter Coblentz, who overcame the electrical challenges of an 18th-century townhouse in order to play us (from speakers linked to his phone) one of a series of songs he’d recently composed. All are based on the poetry of Sylvia Plath and this song was titled Death and Co, including parts for soprano, alto flute, bass clarinet, cello, piano and mixed percussion. (I’m very glad I was taking notes.)
Now, you must forgive me: I feel slightly out of my depth with anything written after 1800, so all I can say is that it was an evocatively unsettling piece, which I imagine (given the title) was precisely what was intended. There was a subtle, building sense of menace beneath the music, occasionally pierced by eerie snatches of flute; and I positively marvelled at the stratospheric heights reached by the soprano at the end. It’s going to be very interesting to see what Coblentz comes up with during the year of his residency and I imagine in due course he’ll be taking over the Composer in Residence blog currently helmed by last year’s incumbent, Edwin Hillier.
To round things off, we moved back into Baroque territory. The baton was passed on to Aidan Phillips, a harpsichordist, who performed a suite written by the French composer Antoine Forqueray (1671-1745). Originally intended for the viola da gamba and transcribed for the harpsichord, this piece is called La Leclair and – I’m sure the world will correct me if I’m wrong – was written as a musical portrait of the composer Leclair, Forqueray’s contemporary. It was a terrifically jaunty piece with veritable waterfalls of notes and, although I couldn’t see Phillips’s hands, I can only imagine that his fingers were flying over the keys. It was immensely enjoyable; and provided a good contrast to the final performance of the evening, from the mezzo-soprano Eleanor Minney. Like Bell, she is the only singer in her intake.
She gave us part of a Bach cantata, the so-called Sorrowful Song commissioned by Leipzig University to lament the death of Queen Christine of Poland, who’d died young. It began with a sober recitative in which Phillips, still on the harpsichord, emulated the tolling sound of bells; and gave way to an elegiac aria stressing the peace of death. Minney drew out both the sorrow and the austere beauty of it, offering a closing note of haunting calm after the exuberance of the Forqueray. Truly lovely.
All in all, it was a great evening. Not only have I now added several more names to my watchlist, I’ve also been introduced to a couple of composers I hadn’t previously heard of. Beautiful music and a learning curve. What could be better? There will be plenty of opportunity to see these young musicians in masterclasses and recitals next year, so keep your eye on the website and get ready to pounce quickly if you see something that you like: the rehearsal room is tiny and events sell out quickly. Proof of that is offered by the current series of concerts being offered by last year’s participants. You can find the (nearly sold-out) programme here and I’ll be reporting back, probably with much excitement, from Cathy Bell’s Raging Roland recital next week.
It was a real treat to have a taster of what’s coming up over the next year, and I’ll keep you posted on future recitals and other sightings of this talented bunch of people.