Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Manchester Camerata and Jess Gillam bring magic and class to Nevill Holt Opera’s winter festival

2 December 2022

A quality programme with just a touch of Christmassy sparkle. 

Nevill Holt Opera

Nevill Holt Opera (Photo: Robert Workman)

This concert from Manchester Camerata, which opened Nevill Holt Opera’s 2022 winter festival, boasted the best of both worlds. There is nothing quite like crossing the beautiful grounds, which are illuminated just enough to get everyone in the Christmas spirit, before enjoying pre-performance mulled wine and mince pies in the onsite chapel. However, once we were seated in NHO’s intimate and beautiful opera house, installed inside an historic stable block courtyard, it was time for some serious music making as the performances were of the highest quality. The programme was well thought through, and the Christmassy items it did include were of the right nature to elevate, rather than cheapen, the overall experience.

Throughout the evening, Manchester Camerata proved just what a smart outfit it is. The concert involved the ensemble’s string players, and their notably clean, crisp and precise style of playing in itself enabled them to capture every last subtlety and detail in the pieces. The group’s skills were seen to especially good effect in Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte, which opened the evening. Shaw wrote the ten minute piece in 2011 after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s String Quartet in F major, Op77No2. It is broadly structured like a minuet and trio, while perhaps taking that classical form just a little further, and seems to explore every facet of string playing in terms of the sounds that can be elicited. Manchester Camerata’s sensitive approach saw it glean every last nuance from the piece, with its adeptness for contrasting light and heavy bow strikes proving particularly impressive.

“…the performances were of the highest quality”

Jess Gillam

Jess Gillam (Photo: Nevill Holt Opera)

The ensemble was then joined by finalist in BBC Young Musician 2016 and broadcaster Jess Gillam for Glazunov’s seminal Concerto in E flat major for alto saxophone and string orchestra, Op. 109 of 1934. It is an amazing piece because it genuinely makes use of the instrument, while also ensuring that it works seamlessly with the lineup of strings. Gillam proved particularly adept at bringing out all of the facets to the piece so that at times the saxophone felt like a natural extension of the strings, while at others it was shown in all its glory, whether it was seemingly at full throttle or conjuring up a more laid back impression of what might be heard in a jazz bar. Gillam then joined the group once more for a compelling performance of Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych’s Carol of the Bells of 1914, in an arrangement by Simon Parkin, to round off the first half. 

After the interval Manchester Camerata performed Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence of 1890 in the version for string orchestra. The violent yet melodic theme in D minor that opens the Allegro con spirito was especially well rendered, while the Adagio cantabile e con moto in D major brought the right sense of innocence to the romantic theme. Then the ensemble really went to town in bringing out the Russian and folklike melodies and rhythms in the Allegretto moderato and Allegro con brio e vivace, thus ensuring that this was a performance that persuaded on every level. By way of an encore Gillam joined the group once more to perform a very successful arrangement of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ to give this high quality programme just the right touch of festive cheer.

• Nevill Holt Opera’s 2023 summer festival, which includes performances of Pagliacci & Gianni Schicchi and La Cenerentola, will run from 31 May to 2 July. Further details will appear in due course on its website.

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