Review - classical music highlights from the first week of the Brighton Festival

Brighton FestivalBrighton Festival
Brighton Festival
REVIEW BY Richard Amey

at The Brighton Dome Concert Hall – Monday 9 May (7.30), Brighton & East Sussex Youth Orchestra, conductor Peter Davison, piano Jeneba Kanneh Mason: George Gershwin, An American in Paris (1928); Florence Price, Piano Concerto in One Movement (1933); Symphony No 3 in C minor (1938).

at All Saints Church, Hove – Tuesday 10 May (1pm), counter tenor Hugh Cutting and piano George Ireland: ‘Untethered’ – Claudio Monteverdi, ‘E pur io torno’(Again I am Drawn, from opera L’incornazione di Poppea); Franz Schubert, ‘Ganymed’; Ernest Chausson, ‘Hébé’; Hugo Wolf, Herr, was Trägt der Boden Hier? (Lord, what will grow ini this soil?); George Benjamin, This, says the Angel (from opera Written on Skin); Herbert Howells, King David (Walter de La Mare); Gabriel Fauré, Cygne sur l’eau (Swan on the Water); Reynaldo Hahn, To Chloris; Nico Muhly, Old Bones; Piers Connor Kennedy, Wait, Two Worlds, Trees (from song cycle Rough Rhymes).

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Friday 13 May (1pm), piano Iyad Sughayer (‘Ee-yad Soo-guy-er; Jordan-Palestine): Helen Ottaway, Levantina; Haydn, Piano Sonata in F major Hob.XVI: 23; Sibelius, Six Impromptus Op5; Robert Schumann, Faschingschwank aus Wien Op26 (Carnival Prank in Vienna).

I was at three concerts featuring young talent – a giant flock of fledglings in a youth orchestra, thrust into city festival limelight with emerging piano soloist Jeneba Kanneh Mason, 19, a Royal College undergraduate, who this week was one among four individual talents now adult, now sprung, fronting these selected concerts. Four new artists for our future.

The Brighton& East Sussex Youth Orchestra, barely a year old, combines three separate former ones as part of Brighton Dome & Brighton Festival’s crucial Create Music project for today’s children’s musical education. Nearly 90 young musicians swamped the stage with six coaching players from London Symphony Orchestra, all responding their industrious conductor, composer and orchestrator Peter Davison, ahead of the orchestra’s first tour, to Normandy in July.

Their dual task and responsibility was to raise the classical music curtain on their home city’s most important month of the year. Something particularly exposed, and hoisting yet higher their performance bar, invoking fortune to favour the brave. It was also to espouse in rehearsal and and introduce on the stage the rediscovered black 20th Century American composer Florence Price to England’s largest arts festival, asking boldness to be their friend.

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In Price Piano Concerto, Jeneba Kanneh Mason, fourth in her famous family sibling seniority, led them forth with a totally assured account of piano writing that was entertaining and energising, though conventional and unexceptional. Jeneba, tall and slender with spectacular waist-length hair braids, composed at the keyboard, already has a distinctive stage presence.

To assess and evaluate the neglected Florence Price’s unfamiliar musical voice was an aim of the audience that was complicated and frustrated by the unclarities inevitable in a mass of outstanding teenagers still in varying shades of confidence and accomplishment on an occasion of focused high endeavour.

Price responds to the challenge the visiting Dvorak threw down nationally, to create an ethnic inflected, self-coloured classical music as American as his own was Bohemian. Price hints at sung spirituals and uses dance rhythms. Percussion punctuation creates street or show music colour and flavour, which in this concert answered the atmospheres of Gershwin’s preceding ballet, An American In Paris.

None of the music was quick in a Piano Concerto more relaxed, less hidebound by European concertante rigour. ‘Juba’ dance, a precursor to ragtime, present in the Concerto, then teamed with habanera elements in her Symphony, whose sound palate entertained with woodblock, castanets, harp, xylophone and celeste.

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The Philadelphia Orchestra will bring Price’s first symphony to the BBC Proms penultimate night (September 9). That will ensure an unclouded experience of her music, which until this century underwent politically unsurprising disregard after her 1953 death. Her passing extinguished her production of a strings suite for Barbirolli’s Hallé Orchestra in Manchester.

The B&ES Youth Orchestra here gained some priceless experience in front of their families, their friends, supporters and the inquisitive public. And when set something more ingrained to perform, they showed truer mettle in their encore: the incandescent coda to Stravinsky’s Firebird.


If this Monday concert had showed ultimately a naive flair in maybe miscalculated hubris, the enterprise and imagination of the following two programmes were carried off at All Saints with a complete assurance and still-yet-young authority that gave the Festival first week its stamp of class.

Both attracted high audience numbers – I thought around 85% of a 400 capacity. Seating set sideways across the church nave created intimacy and although the large potentially chaotic ambient space challenged the pianists’ control of dynamics, one reward was an almost mystical pianissimo effect, which Ireland and Sughgayer numerously harnessed with great skill in finger touch and pedalling.

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Countertenor singing is on the crest of a wave. Who paved the way for all these? The Beatles and pop? Now here comes another Briton to match the Europeans: Hugh Cutting, countertenor’s first Kathleen Ferrier Awardee.

Not just the tantalising, sumptuous, confiding and surprising vocal communication which countertenor is, but a singer with dramatic awareness and insight, a suddenly telling lowest register, and someone already in demand by opera. And already a confident and courageous artist with, on Tuesday, some pandemic-induced psychological and philosophical perspectives on personal liberation experienced through Untethering or Untetheredness.

Appropriate material for this Festival at this harrassing time. Covid reacquainted us with death – artistically and spiritually for the better, one could assert. Cutting showed incisive intellect in drawing up parallel or allusive examples from the world of aria and lieder. The audience received the full song texts alongside curator Cutting’s own written programme notes.

Mortals were tethered in service to ancient gods enjoying freedom (Schubert, Chausson). Lovers are tethered by obsession (Ottone’s attachment to unfaithful Poppea). Through the crucified Christ’s sacrifice, believers may be bound to their craving the afterlife (Wolf). The jealous Protector kills his perceived rival, and then his own lover he’d already tried to murder, in suicide untethers herself (Benjamin). Viewing more freely the wider world softens it and releases King David from his grief (Howells).

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Seeing a gliding swan inspires calmness to engender release from one’s troubles (Fauré). Discovery that one is truly loved liberates the recipient from jealousy or infatuation (Hahn). An onlooking writer empathises intensely with the maligned and physically suffering Plantagenet king Richard III as he is exhumed from under a city car park and then someway exonerated by modern medicine, science and research (Muhly). The soldier untethered from earthly dangers and agonies by religious salvation (Kennedy).

An absorbing and rewarding concert experience – clinched by Ireland’s superbly voiced instrumental partnership of his singer, and by his own verbal recitation of Michelangelo’s 30th Sonnet (ecstatically trapped love), and Cutting’s own reading of a Guardian newspaper report on Richard III’s reappearance in Leicester.

Many there on Friday will contentedly note the career progress of intelligent and personable Arabic pianist Iyad Sughayer. The audience he also talked were shown the beauty his playing inspired from folk-leaning Somerset composer Helen Ottaway (65) in her Levantina – commissioned for Sughayer by her sister Frances. Its original folksong source is the coded, windborne messages to menfolk away at war, chanted by their womenfolk back home.

Many will thank Sughayer for believing this gentle piece would effectively and worthily open his concert. Also, for his insight, knowledge and innate respect for Haydn that this composer is not simply a routine recital warm-up act but has the masterly multiple qualities to sit anywhere in a concert programme. In music for age-old keyboards on a modern grand piano, Sughayer’s delivery was wonderfully deft but direct, light yet assertive, witty as well as profound.

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Plenty were thankful, too, for his eager launching into his repertoire of Schumann’s last, almost delirious instrumental expression of his desire and adoration for hard-to-get wife-to-be, Clara Wieck, before he turned to setting poetry in song for the entire following year. Sughayer was the ardent and exuberant lover personified.

And, most of all for many, listeners were enlightened by his introducing them to Sibelius as a piano composer, with Impromptus written to get a young composer’s bank balance ticking, but audibly his distinctive brooding Nordic self, much minor key and introspective intimacy or Finnish folksy meditation breaking into occasional dance. Home pianists were gratefully tipped off.

Katchachuryan’s slow and wistful, yet flowing item from his Pictures of Childhood, with its sudden ‘Oh, let’s now go out and play’ ending, was an encore of an artiste we should not hesitate to listen to again.

Richard Amey