Peter Auty

‘Twas the weekend before Christmas – to slightly misquote Clement Clark Moore – and two bumper festive treats lie in store for classical music fans from the recently formed Sollar Music in Kennington and Opera Ensemble.

1)If you’re after some traditional seasonal fare, head to St Swithun’s Church, Kennington, on Saturday for a light, fluffy confectionary of Christmas music, from Vivaldi, Handel and Tchaikovsky to arrangements of well-known Christmas carols.

“I’ve organized it like a Christmas selection box, where you pick out your favourites,” explains violist Vanessa McNaught, who started Sollar Music in September.

“So there’s The Nutcracker, which is a traditional at Christmas and a difficult arrangement of the Tchaikovsky to make an orchestral piece work for a string quartet.”

“There’s also selections from Messiah, including the Hallelujah Chorus, and ‘Winter’ from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, as well as a medley with lots of different carols to create a performance from the carols rather than a singalong.

Vanessa, a freelance musician, plays regularly with local orchestra Instruments of Time and Truth and the Adderbury Ensemble, as well as the Orchestra of the Swan in Stratford and Glyndebourne Touring Opera.

The lack of concerts this year inspired her to draw together other local freelance musicians to play some chamber music concerts. 

Sollar Music aims to play in accessible spaces to open up performances to as many people as possible, as successfully spearheaded at their inaugural September concert at St Michael and All Angels Church in Summertown.

“We played in the porch of the church, with the doors wide open, to people passing in the churchyard,” says Vanessa. “A few people knew what we were going to do and came and sat in the churchyard, but there were just as many people who walked through and either took a glance and carried on or stopped and listened to the rest of what we were playing. So that’s something I’d like to pursue more,” she says.

Helping the community is also very much at the heart of Sollar Music, to make music as accessible to as many people as possible, with optional concessionary rates on tickets. (The regular price for the upcoming concert is £12 and the concessionary rate is £4) “to make it more accessible to people who’d like to come,” she says.

Future plans include Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in January, and Vanessa is busy finalizing ideas for February and March.

So don’t forget to make your way to Kennington this Saturday for that Christmas selection box!

Sollar Music’s Christmas Favourites for String Quartet is at St Swithun’s Church, Kennington, on 19th December at 4.30-5.30pm and 7pm-8pm.

www.sollarmusic.org/concerts

2) If you’re after something a little more dramatic, Opera Ensemble is presenting its debut production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci this weekend in Longborough Festival Opera’s famous barn-turned-opera house.

A star-studded cast is led by tenor Peter Auty, who as a 13-year-old chorister famously sang Walking in the Air for the animated film The Snowman.

He is joined by soprano Elin Pritchard, tenor Aled Hall, baritone Nicholas Lester and bass baritone Robert Hayward, with Berrak Dyer accompanying on the piano.

“It’s an extraordinary cast,” says director Christopher Luscombe, who founded Opera Ensemble with Elin Pritchard.

“Normally it would be very difficult to get those sorts of people to do this because they’re all so busy, but this year of course they’re all available. 

“We did aim high, and that’s what made it special because it’s all about voices, really, and they are incredible.”

The seeds for Opera Ensemble were planted last year when Christopher directed Falstaff at The Grange Festival, and the cast members got on so well they kept in touch. Lockdown gave them the perfect opportunity to get back together and put on some socially distanced opera.

The group’s first performance of Pagliacci was at St James’ Church, Islington, in October, and was an instant hit.

“We got together, rehearsed it really quickly, shoved it on with no budget whatsoever, and because there was nothing else happening the critics came to see it and were lovely about it, and that got the attention of places like Longborough,” explains Christopher.

“I think the people at Longborough Festival were looking for shows they could put on that were socially distanced but would give their audiences something in lieu of all the shows that have been cancelled.

“It’s very powerful, very emotional, very dramatic and theatrical, so that’s something I like to think would appeal at the moment, a bit of real escapism”

“I love Longborough and was really keen to do a show there. They do fantastic work. They’re well known for their Wagner rather than Italian 19th century opera, so it’s quite nice for their audience to see Pagliacci, which Longborough probably wouldn’t normally do.”

The story of Pagliacci is an appropriate one for this year, Christopher feels.

“It’s about a group of strolling players putting on a show, so it suited what we’re about. The piece deals with the private lives of performers, and we thought that was quite a hot topic at the moment with the way freelance artists have had such a struggle this year, so we thought this has quite an interesting resonance for our own situation.

“We’re doing it in modern dress, but that’s really because we’ve no money for any period costumes. It’s very pared down, but we chose the opera very specifically, partly because it’s a small cast, partly because it’s one act so there’s no interval – you can’t have intervals these days because of people mixing and buying drinks – and also we thought a one-act opera was great. 

“It’s very powerful, very emotional, very dramatic and theatrical, so that’s something I like to think would appeal at the moment, a bit of real escapism.”

Opera Ensemble’s Pagliacci is at Longborough Festival Opera on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th December, both at 2pm. https://lfo.org.uk

NICOLA LISLE

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