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Ayres & Barry

Richard Ayres: No.42 - In the Alps (UK premiere)
Gerald Barry
: Beethoven (London premiere)

Stephen Richardson bass-baritone
Barbara Hannigan soprano [pictured]
John Fulljames staging
Jon Clark lighting designer
Sound Intermedia

Queen Elizabeth Hall 17 March 2010

A remarkable and surely unique pairing of works by two odd-ball composers, each for large chamber orchestra with a singer protagonist; this made for a splendid concert programme.

Richard Ayres (b.1965) & Gerald Barry (b.1952) were introduced (not too easily) by Tom Service in a friendly pre-concert joint interview conducted in the relaxing atmosphere of the QEH Foyer. The two composers seemed to like each other though their musics, each truly unique, are poles apart. It was not easy for the audience to think of questions to ask afterwards, indeed there were none; but that should not be held against either composer or the event, which was illuminating. Billed as "unconventional tales of long distance love", each of their works actually dealt with impossible loves.

A significant opera composer ?

Richard Ayres, in his unique mini-opera, isolated his frustrated pair at the top and bottom of an unclimbable mountain... She learned to sing by copying animals and birds up at the peak. He, mute at birth, gradually masters the trumpet and blows his tunes up on the wind.

Sadly, they never meet.

Ayres numbers his works baldly, sometimes adding a title; No.42 (In the Alps) is complex and hugely inventive, with wonderfully effective instrumentation, silent-film like captions, a very personal, delicate sense of sad-humour.

The orchestra and solo soprano were dressed up for the show; why the usual dour warning "we ask you not to take photos" ??

London Sinfonietta (dressed up in character for the Alps) and the quite marvellous singer/actress Barbara Hannigan cried out to be photographed; perhaps the L/Sf has some of them all together taken at rehearsal?

A major operatic star, Hannigan probably has not had many opportunities to perform this work, therefore at the Queen Elizabeth Hall she was still relying a little on the music in her hands.

A DVD of Ayres' In the Alps is fervently to be hoped for, likewise one of his longer, 70 mins one-act opera The Cricket Recovers, which was a great success in its Aldeburgh Almeida Opera 2005 premiere production, a CD of which has been provided by Schott, Ayres' publisher.

It brings to the stage cult Dutch writer Toon Tellegen's deceptively simple animal tales, explorations of feelings of grief, joy and the immediacy of life. Its protagonists undertake a journey of personal discovery - seeking the opinions of friends, consulting quacks, and surviving dangerous cures, evil nocturnal visits and psychedelic visions. Its originality places it in the anthropomorphic genre best loved in Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen.

Taken together, these two place Ayres as already a significant opera composer, one from whom more can be expected.

Read a full review of the Aldeburgh premiere from The Independent - "a tale of little animals with big emotions".

And switch to YouTube to see/hear the gorgeous Barbara Hannigan in a substantial excerpt from In the Alps with the Nederlands Blazers Ensemble.

Gerald Barry's Beethoven, bruised by many rejections, is finally scared away from domesticity and consummation of Antonia Brentano's overwhelming acceptance of him, which proved too much for this emotionally damaged man. Stephen Richardson put across the whole text of this rambling love-letter (printed in our programme, but invisible in the dark !), painfully written by Beethoven over two days, heard against a typical Barry's hard-edged, wind dominated ensemble.

Beethoven's closing words in the letter to his "Immortal Beloved" are muttered against the slow unfolding of O Come, all ye faithful - the last of Beethoven's farewells set to that famous tune. Although it was sung and played with conviction - and in the dark, supposedly for "atmosphere" - for us, it failed to achieve an essential connection between words and music.

Barry Photo: Clive Barda

Peter Grahame Woolf

See Musical Pointers reviews of Barry and Ayres CDs [Editor]

Geoff Brown's appreciation in The Times

John Warnaby for Seen&Heard

And from a perceptive blogger, spot on:-

- - Richard Ayres' No.42 (In the Alps) was the real deal. Ayres is a comparative rarity in these circles: he has an ability to combine full on, often very silly, humour with moments of genuine profundity, without becoming either superficial or pretentious. He makes it seem entirely reasonable that the band should all come on wearing woolly hats, while conductor Martyn Brabbins is dressed for a good long hike, backpack included.

The use of projected captions (in the manner of a silent movie) is an inspired way to convey the story being depicted in the ensemble, as well as providing some brilliantly timed jokes The female protagonist's raising by very maternal mountain goats raises a chuckle, as does the nicking of bits of Strauss to evoke the Alps (although that's not as funny as the woman next to me thought it was). this also fits in with the silent movie references, as that sort of lifting of well known music is a standard trick of the cinematic accompanist.

Barbara Hannigan (dressed like a post-punk Brunhilde) gives an astonishing performance, in which she's required to impersonate goats, hogs, cicadas and eagles (and probably some other things I've forgotten about), and does so brilliantly. The use of animal noises is a wonderful example of Ayres's way with a joke: it begins as something funny, but evolves into something strange, wonderful and affecting. Likewise Alistair Mackie (fetching in lederhosen) shows that the gag of a hero who can speak only through his bugle can be something much more than slapstick. The tale of unrequited love between these two characters ought to be just silly, but Ayres magically spins something moving out of it.

Two interludes and a postlude reflect on how animals with different heartbeats perceive time. As with so much of this piece, this began as comedy, but by the conclusion was transformed into something altogether more thought-provoking.

It's a terrible shame that the Queen Elizabeth Hall was half-empty. Both these pieces combine immediate appeal with a genuine depth that would repay repeated hearings.