Looking West/Philharmonia Baroque review – rising ambition and keenly projected Handel | Classical music
NOTSince its 41st incarnation, the Ryedale Festival has spread its events around 30 venues along the southern edge of the North York Moors National Park. The pianist Christopher Glynn is its current artistic director; there’s a real flair to his programming, which artfully mixes the familiar with the more difficult. This year’s festival included six world premieres, as well as accents on the music of Handel and, on its 150th anniversary, Vaughan Williams.
Vaughan Williams, specifically the spiritual inspiration and rewards he drew from the natural world, was also the starting point for the festival’s most ambitious new work. by Julian PhillipsLooking West, to a text by Rebecca Hurst, weaves together three elements. The story of the Celtic saint Bega, who fled her native Ireland to avoid marriage with a Viking chieftain, and found refuge in present-day Cumbria, is counterpointed by the journey of a young man retracing the journey today from Bega across the hills, while Winifred Nicholson’s paintings of the Lake District coastline provide another layer.
It feels, however, rather contrived. A mezzo-soprano (Rebecca Afonwy-Jones) tells the story of Bega; an actor (Alexander Knox) plays the rather self-satisfied traveler, while a soprano (Rebecca Botton) evokes images of Nicholson’s art, but over 75 minutes the three elements never come together in anything moving, let alone dramatic enough to warrant its description as a “concert-theatre work”, despite being staged by Sally Ripley in the imposing Pickering Church. Peter and Saint Paul. The most striking elements were purely musical – the soaring soprano writing and gripping sounds that Philips drew from just eight instrumentalists, the Nova Music Opera Ensemble, led by George Vass.
The night before, at St. Peter’s Church in Norton, the San Francisco-based vintage band’s last of three Ryedale concerts Baroque Philharmonic, on their first visit to the UK in over a decade, focusing on Handel. But there was room for something new here too – the first performance of Ancestor, a Philharmonia Baroque commission shared between Tarik O’Regan (PBO Composer-in-Residence) and Errollyn Wallen. The binary piece consists of short settings for countertenor (the excellent Tim Mead) of poems that O’Regan and Wallen had written for each other, both based on an excerpt from the writings of the 19th-century women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller. Wallen’s setting, The Forms, is extroverted, highly ornate, O’Regan’s The Golden Measure more restrained and only slowly gaining intensity; it’s a nicely contrasting couple.
Mead also featured in the Handel that surrounded the premiere, singing tunes by Admeto, Giulio Cesare and Judas Maccabaeus; the delicate coloratura of “Al Lampo dell’Arme” by Cesare was brilliantly negotiated, the anguish of “Chiudetevi miei Lumi” by Ademeto projected brilliantly. There were also two of the Concerti Grossi from Opus 6, all conducted with tremendous harpsichord verve by John Buttwho had taken over the concert at short notice from PBO director Richard Egarr, and visibly savored every moment.