St John’s Smith Square – Welcome Back!

St John’s Smith Square – Welcome Back!
The return of public concerts to a socially distanced audience.

Following a successful pilot concert with a live audience in July, St John’s Smith Square are delighted to be able to welcome audiences back to enjoy live performances this Autumn.  Between now and the end of 2020 a programme of 63 public concerts is planned. There will also be 50 digital events as part of the St John’s DIGITAL EXCHANGE programme, some of which are hybrid versions of concerts featured in the live programme and some of which are bespoke events created specifically for our digital audience. The 35th Christmas Festival, running from 8th to 23rd December, will include 22 public concerts, whilst the inaugural digital ‘Christmas Festival London’ will feature content from these live concerts alongside specially created material and will run from the 8th December through to 5th January 2021. The programme for November and December (including the Christmas Festival) will be announced in full on 5th October, whilst the programme for the month of October, consisting of 21 public concerts and 17 digital events is launched today (Tuesday 15th September).

The October programme includes a wide range of orchestral and chamber music along with solo recitals. The regular lunchtime concert series resumes, the Digital Exchange series (made possible by public funding from The National Lottery through Arts Council England) continues – including a new strand of ‘Song from St John’s’, the Beethoven string quartet cycle concludes with the late quartets, and there is a welcome return for the Occupy the Pianos festival.

The month commences with a lunchtime concert from soprano Siân Dicker accompanied by Krystal Tunnicliffe and organised in conjunction with the Oxford Lieder Festival. In the first of two concerts by pianist Mark Bebbington, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Jan Latham-Koenig, baritone Roderick Williams is the guest in an effervescent programme of French repertoire. The Revolutionary Drawing Room will be concluding their three-year cycle of the Beethoven string quartets, featuring the complete late quartets over two weekends and including a new work by the composer Rachel StottJames Platt (bass) and Michael Pugh (piano) continue the ‘Song from St John’s’ series, which will also feature on exclusive online performance of Messiaen’s ‘Harawi’ by soprano Lotte Betts-Dean and SJSS Young Artist, Joseph Havlat (piano). Following a recording residency in September, The English Concert, directed by Kristian Bezuidenhout give a star-studded programme of Purcell Odes. Historically informed performance continues as a focus in a recital by horn player Anneke Scott with the Consone Quartet.

Having launched the Digital Exchange programme back in July with our pilot concert featuring a live audience, organised in conjunction with the DCMS, The Gesualdo Six (previous SJSS Young Artists) give two performances with the trumpeter Matilda Lloyd including one where audiences are invited to simply ‘pay what they can afford’. The Young Musician’s Symphony Orchestra make a welcome return with a programme of Wagner and Beethoven. The wonderful Klais organ at St John’s is featured in a recital by the sub-organist of Westminster Abbey, Peter Holder whilst St John’s’ status as a still consecrated church is marked with a Sung Eucharist to mark the feast day of the patron saint of Westminster, St Edward the Confessor. Virtuoso pianist Rolf Hind with the incredible vocal talent of Loré Lixenberg, along with digital artist Sasha Balmazi-Owen launch the next instalment in our contemporary festival, Occupy the Pianos, featuring the world premiere of an SJSS commission from composer Elaine Mitchener. A previous SJSS commission is featured in The Minerva Piano Trio’s (SJSS Young Artists 2016/17) performance of David Knott’s arrangement of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, whilst current SJSS Young Artists, Improviso offer a programme based around the ever popular ‘Folia’. Prior to this concert Improviso will be leading an online workshop, introducing the art of improvisation and inviting musicians to join them online in a digital improvisation based on ‘La Folia’. Another of SJSS’s current young artists, the pianist Joseph Havlat, will give a recital of Czech piano music by Dvořák and his son-in-law, Suk whilst the month comes to a close with two concerts by the Chineke! Chamber Ensemble, presenting music by Vaughan-Williams and Schubert alongside the Four American Spirituals of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Richard Heason, Director of St John’s Smith Square said: “Since we closed our doors at the end of the concert on 16th March we have been focussing our energy and efforts on finding a route back towards live music taking place in St John’s Smith Square once again. We are delighted that we are able now to safely welcome audiences back, albeit in a measured and controlled way, and that we can share the joy of live music. We are immensely grateful to all those who have supported us so generously throughout the period of lockdown including individuals who made donations or gifted the value of tickets they were holding for events no longer able to happen, and Arts Council England who enabled the launch of our Digital Exchange programme with a grant from the Emergency Response Fund (crucial support, both financially and as a boost to our confidence at a very dark time). We also thank all the artists who have collaborated with such open generosity over recent weeks and months and who have committed themselves so fully to these re-opening plans. We look forward, now, to welcoming back our audiences, for whom we exist, whilst continuing to support those unable to join us yet through our Digital Exchange programme.”

The health and safety of our audience, artists and staff is of paramount importance and we have worked extensively to ensure St John’s Smith Square is a ‘Covid Secure’ venue for all those attending events. In line with the latest Government guidance, we have carried out a thorough risk assessment and made changes to the way we operate.  Our aim is to minimise exposure to risk as far as possible so that everyone can focus on enjoying the music. 

Our new safety measures include:

  • Reduced audience numbers and socially-distanced seating (our maximum capacity is less than 20% of our pre-pandemic capacity)
  • Increased and enhanced cleaning between and during events, including regular anti-viral and anti-bacterial fogging
  • A one-way system and queue management
  • All concerts are without an interval
  • Mandatory temperature checks on entry to the building
  • Automated non-contact hand sanitiser stations
  • Asking all visitors to wear face-coverings (unless exempt)
  • Providing PPE to our staff
  • Audience entry and exit via portico doors (with lift access as usual for patrons with limited mobility)
  • Regular ventilation of the hall
  • Digital or ‘print at home’ ticketing
  • Entry for pre-booked tickets only

St John’s Smith Square will continue to review the situation and adapt these measures where necessary to respond to any changes in Government guidance. Full information of future concerts, along with FAQs can be found on the St John’s website.

The journey to the cross: Music for Maundy Thursday

The journey to the cross: Music for Maundy Thursday
The BBC Singers, Sir James MacMillan
St John’s, Smith Sq. 18 April 2019 

MacMillan: Strathclyde Motets; Choral Sequence from the St John Passion
Gesualdo: Responsories for Maundy Thursday

The BBC Singers invited the celebrated Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan to devise and conduct a programme of choral music for Maundy Thursday in celebration of his 60th birthday. MacMillan chose to contrast selections from his Strathclyde Motets with movements from Gesualdo’s Responsories for Maundy Thursday. It concluded with MacMillan’s dramatic Choral Sequence from the St John Passion. The Strathclyde Motets started as an initial commission for one motet for the Strathclyde University Chamber Choir. Between 2005 and 2010 it was expanded into the current 28 communion motets on Latin texts, intended for amateur choirs, but far from straightforward in the vocal techniques needed.

Image result for sir james macmillan Continue reading

Steinitz Bach Players 50th

London Bach Society’s Bachfest 2018
Steinitz Bach Players, Rodolfo Richter
St John’s, Smith Square, 6 November 2918

For the fourth and final day of their 2018 Bachfest, the London Bach Society (LBS) celebrated the 50th anniversary of their own orchestra, the Steinitz Bach Players, with this St John’s, Smith Square concert. The orchestra was founded, along with the London Bach Society, by Paul Steinitz (1909-88), one of the pioneers of the British Bach revival. Made up of leading freelance period instrumentalists, the orchestra performs under different directors during the annual Bachfest. On this occasion, they performed without a conductor, but with direction from the violin by Rodolfo Richter, a practice that I am sure Bach himself would have approved of.   Continue reading

SJSS: Muffat Festival

Muffat Festival
The Brook Street Band
St John’s, Smith Square, 25 February 2018

With four concerts, a dance workshop and a talk spread over a weekend, the St John’s, Smith Square Muffat Festival focussed on Georg Muffat (1653-1704), that most innovative of composers, and the music that both influenced him and was, in turn, influenced by him. Curiously, of the 26 works played during the weekend, only six were actually by Muffat, a sadly missed opportunity to highlight more of his music, much of which is underperformed. The first concert (23 February) concentrated on the German Violin School, with pieces by Schmelzer, Biber and Krieger following the opening Muffat Sonata 2 from his 1682 Armonico Tributo. Dance was the focus of the second concert (24 February), with Muffat sharing the honours with Lully, Handel and Bach. The Italian Influence was explored in the first of two Sunday concerts (25 February), with pieces by Corelli and Handel and a Muffat Violin Sonata. The weekend finished with a focus on the Concerto, with more Bach and Handel along with Geminiani, all at least one generation younger that Muffat. It concluded with Muffat’s Sonata No. 5 in G from Armonico Tributo with its extraordinary extended concluding Passacaglia – one of the highlights of Muffat’s orchestral output.  Continue reading

Bach in Advent: Clavier-Übung III

Bach in Advent
David Titterington, Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies
Bach Clavier-Übung III ‘German Organ Mass’
St John’s, Smith Square. 21 December 2017

During the three-week run-up to Christmas, St John’s, Smith Sq has been running a series of free early evening organ recital, given by the curator of the SJSS Klais organ, David Titterington, and focussed on the music of JS Bach. The two I had intended to hear before evening concerts were both cancelled, but I did catch the evening concert that concluded the series. This was a performance of the major pieces from Bach’s Clavier-Übung III, occasionally referred to this Bach’s monumental work, the largest single collection of his organ music. It was published in 1739 and includes a wide range of musical style, in the form of chorale preludes (in pairs, with larger pedaliter and smaller manualiter arrangement) based on the German Lutheran Mass, together with four duets, the whole enclosed with a large-scale Praeludium and Fugue – the latter known in the UK as the ‘St Anne Fugue’ after the hymn tune which the theme resembles.  Continue reading

SJSS: Holy Week Festival

Siglo de Oro & New London Singers
St John’s, Smith Square: 
Holy Week Festival. 15 April 2017

WP_20170415_12_49_34_Pro (2).jpgThe St John’s, Smith Square Holy Week Festival (also reviewed here and here) concluded with a vocal workshop and lunchtime concert with Siglo de Oro and an evening concert from the New London Singers. The morning workshop was led by Patrick Allies, director of Siglo de Oro, and focussed on Bach’s motet Jesu meine freude, giving useful insights into the structure, text and musical contents of this most complex piece. Siglo de Oro’s lunchtime concert sandwiched this piece between two shorter meditative pieces by Purcell Hear my Prayer, and Remember not, Lord, our offences, concluding with Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater a 10.  Continue reading

Palisander: Beware the Spider!

CONCERT: Antidotum Arachne
Palisander
St John’s, Smith Square. 16 February 2017

CD: Palisander Beware the Spider!
PALG-33. 37’51

The St John’s, Smith Square Young Artists scheme gives emerging soloists and ensembles a platform to showcase their talents through three SJSS concerts, a chance to commission new music, and opportunities to develop skills in marketing, education and outreach. The latest batch of six  (for the year 2016/17) includes the recorder quartet Palisander. They already seem pretty adept at marketing, and took the opportunity of the first of their three concerts (given under the title Antidotum Arachne) to launch their debut CD, Beware the Spider!.

The concert and (rather short) CD explore the world of the Tarantella, a curious aspect of folk medicine in 16th and 17th century Italy where victims of venomous spider bites were not offered any medicinal cure or relief but were regaled by local musicians (often funded by the municipality) with a variety of musical pieces, some known as Tarantella, intended to cure them of their otherwise fatal symptoms. In a well-chosen and varied programme, Palisander’s CD and concert reflected aspects of the various symptoms along with arrangements of original Tarantellas by Miriam Nerval, who also provided the programme notes for the CD and concert. For a few of the pieces they were joined by Toby Carr, playing theorbo and baroque guitar. Continue reading

Forgotten Vienna: Amadè Players – St John’s, Smith Square

Forgotten Vienna: Amadè Players.
St John’s, Smith Square, 31 March 2015
Carl Ditters Concerto for Two Violins in C, Anon (Not-Haydn) Concerto for Horn in D, Johann Baptist Waṅhal  Symphony in aRequiem in E flat.
Dominika Fehér & George Clifford, violins, Ursula Paludan Monberg, natural horn, Amadè Players, Nicholas Newland, director, Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

Eighteenth century Vienna attracted many émigré musicians from Hungary, the Czech lands of Moravia, Silesia and Bohemia, and other smaller city states within the Hapsburg Empire.  Alongside composers such as Mozart and Haydn, they were important contributors to the development of the classical style during the mid to late 18th century. They included the composers Ditters and Waṅhal, the focus for the concert by the Amadè Players (St John’s Smith Square, 31 March 2015).  Both were known to have to have played in a string quartet with Haydn and Mozart, so were clearly a key part of Viennese musical life.  ‘AKA’ was a bit of a sub-plot of the impressively detailed programme notes – Ditters is usually referred to as ‘Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’ (his post 1773 ennoblement name), while Waṅhal was also known as Vanhal, Vaňhal, Vanhall, Wanhall, Wannhall or Van Hall.

An extension of the post-doctoral research interests of the Amadè Players’ director, Nicholas Newland, the programme featured the British premières of Ditters’ Ccncerto for two violins (c1762) and Waṅhal’s Symphony in A minor (c1769) as well as the world première of the latter’s Requiem Mass in E flat, the second and smaller of the two Requiems he wrote in memory of his parents. A rather better-known piece came with the Horn Concerto in D, formally listed as being by Haydn, but now thought to be by one of a pair of Bohemian composers.

Dominika FehérAppropriately, given the programme’s focus, the opening double violin concerto featured an excellent young Hungarian violinist Dominika Fehér (right).  She was joined by the equally impressive George Clifford, concertmaster of the Amadè Players. During the 1760s, Ditters was listed as violin soloist more than any other player in Vienna, and it is assumed that this work was written for him to perform, perhaps with his brother. The original manuscript includes his written cadenzas. It is an attractive work, with idiomatic violin writing, even if some of the figuration and harmonic movement is slightly predictable. Both players complimented each other well, notably in the central slow movement where they moved in parallel.

The not-Haydn Horn Concerto was given an extraordinary performance by the Danish Ursula Paludan Monberg_cropUrsula Paludan Monberg (left). I have raved about her playing in Early Music Review, notably after an exquisite performance of the notorious Quoniam tu solis from Bach’s B minor Mass in Bach’s own Leipzig Thomaskirche (with the English Concert, in 2012)  and last year’s performance of Handel’s Theodora at the Barbican. Despite having to hobble on stage on crutches with a broken foot, she was on top form playing the notoriously tricky natural horn. I was particularly impressed with her control of tone, using her hand in the horn’s bell – a technique that had only just been introduced at the time of this piece.  She played her own cadenzas, giving herself a monumental task, not least in the range of the notes, including what I think must be the lowest note I have ever heard played on a natural form.

After the interval, the orchestra expanded to include oboes and horns for the Waṅhal Symphony in a. Dr Charles Burney wrote that Waṅhal’s “symphonies had afforded me such uncommon pleasure, that I should not hesitate to rank them among the most complete and perfect compositions for many instruments, which the art of music can boast”. I am not sure if I would be quite so complimentary, but this example was certainly an impressive work. Despite the presence of four horns, they were only really used to fill out chords until a couple of flourishes towards the end of the bustling final movement.

The concert finished with Waṅhal’s E flat Requiem Mass, a relatively short work with an attractively lyrical Lux Aeterna. The choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge made an impressively coherent sound. It is possible that this was written during (or for) one of Waṅhal’s periodic visits to the Croatian city of Varaždin, one of the seats of the Counts Erdödy and, between 1756 and the disastrous fire of 1776, the capital of Hapsburg Croatia. As it happens, my main exposure to Waṅhal’s music has been during my visits to the Varaždin Baroque Evenings festivals – I have been a member of the festival jury, and have given several organ recitals there. Varaždin’s imposing Stari Grad fortress contains a portrait of Waṅhal, and the baroque Erdödy Palace is now the Varaždin School of Music.

A CD with the same title, Forgotten Vienna, will be released later this year on the Resonus Classics label.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/04/05/forgotten-vienna-amade-players-st-johns-smith-square/]

Le Création du Monde – European Union Baroque Orchestra

The annual St John’s Smith Square Christmas Festival has adopted a number of performers who seem to return each year, one being the European Union Baroque Orchestra.  As readers may know, EUBO have had a troubled year as their usual EU funding stream ground to a halt – hopefully temporarily.  Despite having had to cancel the 2014 cohort of auditioned players, they have continued to keep up some elements of their touring concert schedule, drawing on players from earlier incarnations of the training orchestra.

Their SJSS programme (11 Dec 2014) was Le Création du Monde, starting, perhaps appropriately given their current situation, with Rebel’s depiction of chaos at the opening of Les Elémens.  The second half Suite of pieces from three Rameau operas had a similar start with the Ouverture from Zaïs (a more hesitant depiction of chaos), closing with the tempest from Platée, with the filling between focussed on various wind-inspired pieces from Les Boréades. The other works were Muffat’s Propitia Sydera Concerto Grosso (with its fine Ciacono) and Rebel’s Les Caractères de la Danse.   As ever, the young players demonstrated characteristic grace and eloquence along with musical excellence, with notable contributions from flautists Emma Halnan and Flavia Hirte, violinists Yotam Gaton and Jamiang Santi and cellist Guillermo Turna Serrano.

Andrew Benson-Wilson
This review first appeared in Early Music Review, Feb 2015.