Classical Opera @ 20

Classical Opera 20th Birthday Concert
Orchestra and Choir of The Mozartists, Ian Page
The Barbican. 9 October 2017

Classical Opera was founded in 1997 and has carved out an important place in the musical world for its exploration of music of the classical era, in particular, Mozart. He is the inspiration for their ambitious Mozart 250 project, a chronological exploration of Mozart’s life, works and influences that each year will explore the music of Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. Now joined by a companion branding as The Mozartists, their name for increasing concert, rather than opera work, they celebrated their 20th birthday with a spectacular concert in London’s Barbican. The opening sequence of pieces, interspersed with reading, focussed on themes of “birth and rebirth, compassion and forgiveness, human inspiration and . . . what Beethoven and Schiller called brotherhood”. 

The first half explored those themes through five pieces of music interspersed with readings, ranging from O’Shaughnessy’s Ode (“We are the music makers”) to Peter Porter’s Three Poems for Music – “our greatest art”. They opened with Haydn’s Representation of Chaos from The Creation, leading into the first chorus with its dramatic evocation of ‘Let there be Light’. Mozart’s reworking of Handel’s Ode to St Cecilia’s Day followed with Leidenschaften stillt und weckt Musik, with soprano Anna Devin making the first of several outstanding appearances, here joined by Jonathan Byers for the beautifully played extended cello solos. Anna Devin remained in the foreground for pure Mozart, the first movement of his Exsultate, jubilate. It’s exuberant and virtuosic writing for the solo voice magnificently expressed both technically and emotionally by Anna Devin.

More Mozart followed, with the March and Cavatina, Accogli, oh re del mar from Idomeneo, impressively sung by Stuart Jackson, with the support of some fine woodwind playing from The Mozartists. An almost unknown Beethoven piece (at least to me) completed the first half, the soprano aria and chorus Da stiegen die Menschen from the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, an early composition written while Beethoven was still in Bonn, aged 19. It was commissioned by a learned Bonn society which included many musicians and Count Waldstein, Beethoven’s patron. The indisposition of the advertised soprano gave us the chance to hear from Anna Devin again for this fascinating piece.

The climax of the evening, and, possibly of the 20 years of Classical Opera’s lifetime, was the second half performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a piece that sums up all the themes of the evening, and many more besides. An enormously ambitious undertaking for The Mozartists orchestra, less than a year old, which they carried off with tremendous aplomb. Ian Page’s direction of this massive work was exemplary, sensibly avoiding wallowing in the occasional sentimentality of the music and keeping sufficient control of the pace to maintain momentum. He was particularly good at steering the orchestra through the lengthy crescendos and the many transitional passages in this work (a typical Beethoven trait) where the music seems at first sight to be treading water, but which in fact are key moments in the build-up of tension of the music. Page’s interpretation of the Scherzo was almost brutal in its energy, with timpanist Robert Kendell relishing his time in the spotlight. Other instrumentalists the deserve mention are Jane Booth, clarinet, and James Eastaway, oboe.

Standing in a very short notice was soprano Natalya Romaniw, joining Claudia Huckle, Stuart Jackson, and Henry Waddington and the large chorus. An excellent concert, celebrating 20 years of Classical Opera, and the major contribution they have made to London’s musical world.


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