The highlights were a piano quintet by David Knotts, eloquent lines of construction fused with a seamlessness of idea and feeling.
Young lions were well represented. David Knotts’ Hover for clarinet and piano combined a natural cut and thrust with glittering poise.
And there was another new work, On such a night as this is!, three well-made, often witty piano quintet movements by David Knotts.
The contemporary was David Knotts, about whom the programme notes told us nothing but the music told plenty. His one-movement Kitharodia for piano quartet (1998) begins in juxtapositions of short phrases and scurryings, not unlike Weir. But it evolves into arcs of self-generating melody, building to climaxes of an almost 19th-century Romantic rhetoric. One does not often hear such "old fashioned" techniques renewed so freshly. There is real musicality here.
Katherine Craik’s wonderful ghost story set on a remote shore was stark and atmospheric. A chorus of Winds and The Seas lie in wait for those who venture onto the isolated beach. Six Explorers come across an abandoned lighthouse where they are claimed by Ghost Children and set to haunt the beach for eternity. The text is suitably goose-pimply – ‘we are lost in time at the end of the world’ chant the Ghost Children in a spine-chilling sequence. David Knotts’ score has a lot going for it – angular, atonal harmonies built around folk tunes and modality.
…Knotts' 10-minute Kitharodia seemed positively prolix. Inspired by the Homeric character Thamyris, a singer who accompanied himself on a five-string harp, it casts the piano as the harp while the strings deliver the increasingly impassioned and convoluted song. It's impressively effective.
But I was also immensely impressed by two Spitalfields Festival commissions that tied in with this year's theme of Huguenot music: Golden Threads and Silver Strings, a completely engaging cantata by David Knotts for professional soprano, oboe, harp and narrator, and children from a local primary school.
Golden Threads and Silver Strings told the story of an imaginary journey made my two real-life Huguenot refugees, played and sung by the pupils of the local Canon Barnett Primary School. They certainly flung themselves into the performance with smiling enthusiasm…the songs composed by David Knotts…were written in that graceful, slightly Frenchified idiom you find on British filmscores of the 1950s. It was harmonically quite sophisticated…The whole thing had a charming, slightly quaint air, magnified by the faded, peeling intimacy of the country’s oldest music hall.
David Knotts’ Nightwatching: ways of looking at the Moon, was brimful of ideas and motifs, introduced by an Italianate - and brilliantly played - trumpet solo. Although there was no obvious reference to Puccini there was a strong pull in that direction and I think that the opera house will claim Knotts before long.
The most memorable of these scores was David Knotts’s Barcarola: Adorni di Canto, which hinted at the lilt of Venetian music with ghostly, hesitant ebb and flow.
For me, the lure was a new piece for clarinet and piano by David Knotts. Called Washed among the Stars, it swam in notes like late-Romantic Tippett, pleasurably self-assertive and extremely memorable.
One was a brilliant little cabaret-opera (as I guess you’d describe it) called An Eye for an Eye, written by David Knotts (a composer I’ve admired for years: he’s sharp, smart and inventive) and adapting the true story of an upstairs/downstairs murder into mirthfully macabre music-theatre. Half way between stylised Feydeau farce (the perpetrators are French housemaids) and the horror-comedy of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, it was a joy and played in the ideal space of an old, decaying cinema now turned into a comedy club venue.
Reading the description in the Festival program of this 'Cabaret Opera' I was immediately both intrigued and terrified. Brought up within two contrasting traditions of Classical Opera and Broadway Musical, I have always been suspicious of cabaret. Yet, the enticement of a modern theatrical treatment of a gruesomely famous crime could not be shied away from and I ventured into the Komedia Theatre with as open a mind as I could muster. The Komedia makes for a perfect cabaret setting, with seating clustered at the foot of the stage and everyone happily sipping some wondrous concoction from the bar. It was obvious from a quick chat with several other guests, that no one really knew what to expect, but everyone was game to see what was on offer. An Eye for an Eye, for those who have not read the program, is the story of the Papin Sisters, two notorious housemaids who murdered their mistress and her daughter in a fit of rage in the 1930s. It is a true story that has inspired many films and plays, most famously, The Maids, by Jean Genet. This is indeed a rich choice for a small opera, but a very difficult story to tackle on a small budget. This production, performing its debut tonight, was written as a collaboration between the brave soprano, Jessica Walker, and music director, David Knotts, with the full knowledge that they were attempting something not only completely surprising, but something that would have to somehow overcome the severe restrictions of their small budget and large expectations. What they have created is a charming musical nugget, a small, but perfectly formed treat, a delicious cupcake of a production, not a Black Forest Cake or a Baked Alaska, but a treat nonetheless. The two woman cast of Jessica Walker and Harriet Williams, both consummate vocalists and actresses, had to play the parts of the two maids as well as their two murder victims, exchanging personalities at will. It was evident that both women took much delight in playing out their roles – and they sang and danced, harmonised and soloed marvelously – and for such a dark subject matter, delightfully. Although I do not think a person who had not read the blurbs about this story in the program would have fully understood exactly what was taking place on stage, it was quite evident that in this rendition of the story, the maids were quite overworked and treated with scorn by a mistress who was overbearing and merciless to both the maids and her own daughter. There was also a tantalizing undercurrent of aberrant sexuality in both pairs of women. The climactic murder scene was both shocking and comic – performed on a darkened stage, with much hammering and watermelon smashing. It worked surprisingly well, although I confess I had been hoping for a bit of blood. The pun of the title, An Eye for an Eye, is a sly reference to the gruesome gouging out of the murder victims’ eyes. This was a clever theme picked up at the end of the play with just the right flourish, just as if Ms Walker was plunking a cherry on top of her cupcake of a production. Laura Dunlap
This is a brave debut from the Lawson Trio, but a wise one. Not just formidable musicians, they are questing spirits who have shown a rare commitment to the creation of new music, so it's right that their first CD boasts no fewer than five premieres of works written for them. These are rich pickings indeed. I predict a bright future for David Knotts's scintillating 'The Long Way Home', inspired by torrential summer rain. Its second movement beautifully captures the wistful sense of time passing evoked in Townsend Warner's title poem. At just 12 minutes long, it's a programmer's dream, though it requires all the sensual subtlety and detail these performers bring. 'The Dead Broke Blues Break' by Camden Reeves makes a pungent contrast; they revel in its witty re-enactment of the deconstructed blues on a cracked record which gradually gathers coherence as it reaches the middle of the vinyl. Turnage's 'Fast Stomp' covers similar muscular territory, a terrific moto perpetuo belonging to the same world as his recent dance music. The biggest work, Anthony Powers's four-movement Piano Trio (2010), is a finely wrought achievement, the kernel of each movement being a dark-hued English folk song. The piece began life as a movement, 'Ghost', for the Schubert Ensemble's Chamber Music 2000 project, which the Lawson Trio has embraced fruitfully. I'm baffled that Cheryl Frances-Hoad's witty 'Five Rackets for Trio Relay' didn't win funding for the Cultural Olympiad project: each piece is cleverly tailored to string players of different abilities. It's fresh and funny. Performance - 5 stars Recording - 4 stars
This fine group are not content to peruse the big back catalogue of works for piano, violin and cello... David Knott's title piece muses on a nostalgic image by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Anthony Powers's Piano Trio exploits English folk song, but conjures up the ghosts of Brahms and Debussy. Cheryl Frances-Hoad's 'Five Rackets for Trio Relay' (a double piano trio involving young musicians) portrays diverse Olympic sports, the "sailing" movement especially illustrational. Best of all is Camden Reeves's 'The Dead Broke Blues Break', evoking and vigorously transforming the blues as imagined on a warped 78 record.
Filling a debut disc with first performances of contemporary works is a commercial gamble, but members of the Lawson Trio had no qualms about the decision for their album 'The Long Way Home'. 'For your first CD you want something you believe in passionately,' says pianist Annabelle Lawson of the result, issued on ASC's Prima Facie label. Four of the five works were written for the trio but the links are stronger than that. 'The works have come about as a result of all of our musical journeys,' says cellist Rebecca Knight. 'David Knotts [composer of the album's title work} was my first chamber music coach and a really inspiring figure for me at the Junior Academy, and Cheryl Frances-Hoad was at Cambridge with us and already writing operas.' Knotts' work was the first commission, in 2010, followed by a piano quartet from Cheryl Frances-Hoad. 'That was such a storming success that we commissioned a double piano trio for the Olympics,' Lawson says. The result was the 'Five Rackets for Trio Relay'... 'It was quite complex and only Cheryl could have done it,' Lawson adds. Anthony Powers is another example of composer generosity. The trio had commissioned a short work from him and he attended the premiere. 'He said "What would you think if I wrote a grown-up trio for you?" We said that would be very nice. 'It was post-concert after a couple of glasses of sine and we thought nothing would come of it, ' Humphreys says. 'Then a package arrived on my doorstep a few weeks later and I couldn't believe it was a five-movement trio.'
It is not only complete works that are presented at The Tête à Tête Opera Festival (Riverside Studios, London) but it also offers the opportunity to works in progress to get aired publicly and David Knotts’ An Eye for an Eye: A Wild Evening with the Papin Sisters is one of those incomplete works that was presented. This was the first performance of the first seven scenes. Knotts is a British composer, a finalist in the first BBC Young Musician of the Year Composer competition, and has led a fruitful career writing for leading ensembles and soloists. His output includes operas, notably his Stormlight for W11 Opera. His sound has a strong harmonic drive, rich with melodic invention, a sensitivity to timbre and fine control of rhythm to make him an ideal composer for theatre works. Set in 1933 in a bourgeois house in Le Mans, the opera opens with the two maids Christine and Lea preparing for a party. Knotts’ incisive ostinati creates a sense of real purpose and energy in the opening scene, while capturing something of the comic nature of the interaction between one maid and the less effective other. Jessica Walker (who also wrote the libretto) sings with a bright, vibrant sound, contrasting well with the rich lower tones of Rebecca de Pont Davies. Both are clearly compelling actors as well as singers, and they do much to bring these comic yet mad maids to life. With Knotts at the piano, playing with colour and precision, this was an engaging opening to what should be an exciting work. Even within the opening one hears melodic fragments that attach to the characters and ideas presented; I can imagine the complete work will be pleasing to hear as one could chart the motifs as they progress with the story. The Madame of the house (Rebecca de Pont Davies) becomes fascinated by her new electric bell, the use of which frustrates the maids, particularly as Madame keeps barking increasingly complex orders at the maids. Even the bell is captured with bright chords in the high tessitura of the piano, and the ensueing chanson the Madame sings expressing her what could be described as love for the new electric bell is harmonically rich and nostalgic of 1930s song. The Madame’s daughter Genevieve (Jessica Walker) longs to get rid of one of the maids, and is also subject to her mother’s constant reminders of her ‘ugliness’. A wonderful comic moment is when Madame sings of how ugly her daughter is, and how she will make the party a masked ball to ensure none will see Genevieve’s face. All along, Genevieve lingers behind her mother, hearing of her party plans and how much her mother recoils at her appearance. Knotts’ music captured the energy of the action with precision, a broad range of textures from single lines to denser chords yet throughout it remained consistent, an extended palette that at once create humour and at another melancholy. He brings something of the cabaret in his writing that suited the performers characters, both of which seem ideally cast for these roles. His writing is nothing but ideal for the story and I look forward to seeing the complete the opera, particularly as there is a murder to come. The stage was effectively devised to be minimal yet it never felt lacking – Hazel Gould and Angel Exit Theatre collaborators in bringing this piece of music theatre to life with only a hanging cloth and a few props. The nature of the studio and the festival means the audience are free to interact with the performers and composers, sharing their experiences and engaging with the dialogue of what can be possible with opera of the future.