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Aldeburgh Festival (8): Events for Saturday 18.06. 2006 (JW)

Southwold Pier (12 Noon):The Original Chinese Conjuror

Southwold Church (3.30pm):
Polyphony, cond. Stephen Layton

Snape Maltings (7.30pm):CBSO, cond. Oliver Knussen, Karen Cargill - mezzosoprano, Jean-Guihen Queyras -cello.


Mahler: What the Wild Things Tell Me (1893-6, arr. Britten 1941) Songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn. John Woolrich (b. 1954) Cello Concerto (1988) Britten Sinfonia da Requiem (1940).


The Original Chinese Conjuror - Photo: Pete Jones


A busy middle weekend of the festival began with a pleasant trip to the nearby seaside resort of Southwold, where the Aldeburgh Almeida Opera Group's production 'The Original Chinese Conjuror' was taking place in a room above the pier. This work is not 'opera' in any strict sense, 'musical theatre' would be a much more correct genre, and the terms 'vaudeville' or 'cabaret' would not be far off the mark either. It is a lively and entertaining show, based on the life of an unsuccesful magician, who decided to add novelty to his act by pretending to be Chinese.

The script adopts a high-risk strategy, 'beginning with the ending' and then working back. This might be described as 'post-modern', although it was in fact used by Vita Sackville-West in 'Seducers in Ecuador' who then announces that 'surprise is not of the essence of this tale'. It means that the opening gets off  to a bang (literally) but leaves a quandary as to quite how the show should conclude.


Andrew Watts, the counter-tenor, attracted a lot of interest for his role as Ping. However, I would also commend the tenor, Phillip Sutton, who has to take a wide variety  of small parts and who conducted this feat of versatility with considerable aplomb. The stalwart and inventive wife of the hapless magician is also well played by Sophie Louise Dann.

Although there are some good 'numbers' such as 'Man of Mystery' (which pays a nod at least to Austin Powers), I enjoyed the show more for its spectacle and entertainment than for sheer musical merit. However, I think it was a little-overlong and that the script would have benefited from somewhat tighter editing, and perhaps a little more rehearsal time, as it could do with more polish at this stage.


If you are looking for a serious contemporary opera, this is not for you. If you would enjoy something entertaining on stage in the summer, it may fit the bill. I think it would tour well to festivals.

In the afternoon, lack of polish was the last comment that could be made. A slick and highly professional choral concert was given in the beautiful St Edmund's Church, Southwold, by Polyphony under the founder and conductor Stephen Layton. The performance ranged from Schütz to Schoenberg, including both sacred music and lieder. The singing was clear and precise, with the usual high quality sound one has come to expect from this ensemble. The sell-out audience gave tremendous applause. The only criticism which could be made was that Polyphony's visit to the festival was a rather short one.


In the evening, the CBSO were conducted by Oliver Knussen (substituting at very short notice for Sakari Oramo, who had been taken ill) in a demanding programme at Snape Maltings. The first half of the programme opened strongly with well-crafted playing and singing in Mahler's What the Wild Flowers Tell Me,  in the reduced version for smaller forces arranged by Britten. Although a smaller venue than Symphony Hall, Birmingham, where they had played only four days previously, the venue suits the orhestra's sound very well. (Another performance from the CBSO was  to close the festival, and is available on the Radio 3 website). The listener would not have been aware that Oliver Knussen was not the scheduled conductor had they not been notified of this change. Mr Knussen brought effortless mastery to a fine performance and in stepping in so very creditably, he is surely the star of the show.

Photo: Jeremy Young


The cello concerto by the festival's Associate Artistic Director John Woolrich, opened with a lengthy solo section. Strings then joined the cello after a dramatic drumroll. Both of these forms recur, another lengthy unaccompanied section for the cello being about fifteen minutes into the work. Further drumrolls punctuate delicate uplifting sections where the flute has an extended and admirably played solo section near the end of the work.) The programme generously and helpfully provided notes by the composer himself,


'My cello concerto starts softly, high in the cello's register, and gently and slowly falls towards the 'earth' of a full-footed hocket for cello and orchestra (coloured by two kinds of exotic drums: a taiko and three djun djuns.) The orchestra amplifies and extends the timbre of the cello: particuarly the dark (low brass, drums and tympani), the lyrical (flugel horn, for instance) and the soft (low, whispering strings).'


The inspiration for the piece is the darkness just before dawn and the first light of daybreak. It is dedicated to the young composer and flautist Jo Johnson, who died in 1997.



Photo: Paul Morris


The second half opened with a fine but not exceptional performance of a selection of Mahler's Wunderhorn songs. The highlight of the evening however was the following work, Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem. This work is being played quite frequently at the moment, featuring for example in the recent Shostakovich and his Contemporaries series in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall. This performance at Aldeburgh began more slowly and with a more diffuse approach, which enabled it to build to a more sudden climax, with considerable dramatic effect. The trumpet deserves special mention. This exciting performance brought a standing ovation, with cheers form the audience, for Oliver Knussen and the CBSO.


The special atmosphere of the festival here at Aldeburgh was particularly apparent on this very lovely evening, with evening light across the marshes enabling  some members of the audience to enjoy birdwatching during the interval as well as music in the concert hall !





Julie Williams






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