Classical Music

The week in classical: Orpheus; Apartment House review – rich, rewarding, different | Classical music

Take one hallowed operatic masterpiece and mix, mash, fuse or, better, unite it with Indian ragas and tala, song and dance. Handpick a cast of classically trained musicians of the western tradition and ask them to share Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 opera, Orfeo, with British-born performers steeped in a wide-ranging classical Indian heritage. Any attempt to guess how Opera North’s collaboration with its Leeds-based neighbour, South Asian Arts, might work was destined to be wide of the mark. The results, flowing seamlessly between Italian and Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi and Bengali, as well as between musical styles, were richer and more rewarding than even the most upbeat prophesy.

Billed as a “reimagining”, the haunting story remains the same: Orpheus the musician tries to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice, from the underworld, but looks back and in so doing loses her for ever. The staging, by Anna Himali Howard, fixes the action in the lovingly nurtured back garden of an end-of-terrace house of the kind found in any UK town or city. The event is the wedding party of Orpheus and Eurydice; the musicians – whether playing violin or theorbo, tabla or esraj – are among the guests. The designs by Leslie Travers and team achieve a clever union of real and surreal (makers of rugs, balloons, textiles, backcloth, as well as head gardener, are among the many credited). Fairy lights illuminate the garden. Costumes display the bright, bejewelled colours of celebration. The language of Greek myth and baroque opera has become the vernacular of modern family life in 21st-century Britain. The question posed is the biggest any human has to ask: how to deal with grief.

The musical styles were discrete and equal. In the title role, Nicholas Watts spun and embellished Monteverdi’s vocal line with the honed tones of an experienced opera singer. Being able to project above an orchestra and into an auditorium is part of his artistic armoury. The Indian approach, meditative, intimate, is the opposite, made for close encounters. The role of Eurydice was taken by the young British Tamil performer Ashnaa Sasikaran, big on social media for her Carnatic singing. The music for her role was composed by the show’s co-music director, Jasdeep Singh Degun, in the Hindustani style of northern India. Sasikaran’s shimmering melismas could not be more different from the clean, pure sounds of Watts’s Monteverdi, yet for both, ornamentation is a key to expression. The contrasting soundworlds combined and separated, not only for the leading characters but for chorus and instrumentalists too, like a meeting of the waters.

‘A meeting of the waters’: Shahbaz Hussain on tabla, RN Prakash on ghatam, Mark Wagstaff on percussion, Sergio Bucheli on theorbo, Jasdeep Singh Degun on sitar and Andrew Long on violin. © Tristram Kenton

Both Degun and the baroque authority Laurence Cummings are called music director. They work in sympathy: Cummings conducts from the harpsichord, Degun from the sitar. Honouring the Indian tradition of singing as well as playing, Cummings leaves his keyboard and sings the part of Shepherd. Kaviraj Singh, who plays the santoor (a hammered dulcimer), left his place among the orchestral ensemble to sing, with fierce expression, the role of Caronte. Similarly Kirpal Singh Panesar, master of the bowed tar shehnai, offered the evening’s climactic finale in the singing role of Apollo/Guru, addressing words of comfort to the grieving Orpheus: “You will see each other in the sun and the stars.” The impatient may find this generous collaboration too long. I would have liked to hear it all over again.

The journey from the microtonal patterns characteristic of Indian ragas to the experiments of the group Apartment House is shorter than you might think. This shape-changing ensemble, since 1995 a familiar presence in art galleries and alternative spaces such as Cafe Oto in east London, is now a welcome, and uncompromising, fixture at Wigmore Hall. Nine musicians performed a programme entitled Harmonic Fields. The blurring of fixed pitches – best expressed as what we think of, in western music, as being “in tune” – was explored in two world premieres, Harmonic Islands by the Lithuanian composer Juta Pranulyté (b.1993), and Natura Naturans by Irish-born Scott McLaughlin (b.1975).

The essential grouping in four ensemble works was strings with clarinet. Harmonies and vibrations whirling slowly, never fixed, ever changing, demanded close listening. By chance or design, the composer Oliver Leith, winning recognition earlier this month for his opera Last Days, and the conductor of that work, Jack Sheen (b.1993), also featured. Sheen’s Solo for Cello (and fixed audio) was the highlight, an extensive, ghostly work played by Apartment House’s indefatigable artistic director, Anton Lukoszevieze. Imagine a baroque dance suite – with the familiar figurations of arpeggios, quick finger work and string crossing – played muted and whispered a few galaxies away, and you get the idea.

Jakub Hrůša, Jakob Hrusa, press publicity photo
Jakub Hrůša.

A quick hurray for the appointment of Jakub Hrůša, announced last week as incoming music director at the Royal Opera House, succeeding Antonio Pappano from September 2025. The 41-year-old Czech conductor has been universally welcomed, his collegiate approach praised. Apart from being a stimulating choice, it also means that, with Tomáš Hanus at Welsh National Opera, the UK now has two world-leading exponents of Czech music. And that’s something to shout about.

Star ratings (out of five)
Apartment House

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