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2019 Classical highlights

2019 has been a great year for the classical music scene in Bristol. Though Colston Hall’s auditoriums are undergoing their historic transformation, the variety of music on offer in our city is as eclectic as ever. Incorporating a huge range of spectacles, from modernism to opera, local ensembles to international artists, the Bristol concertgoer has an enormous choice on their hands.

Contemporary classical music has been a main feature of 2019, especially within the Colston Hall Presents programme. Multi-instrumentalist Poppy Ackroyd wowed her Colston Hall audience in February, using both the interior and exterior of her violin and piano – and not just with her bow and fingers. Among her tools are drumsticks and plectrums, creating a unique soundscape that makes her “a neo-classical force to be reckoned with” (Electronic Sound).

BSO continued to dazzle

Later in February, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra dazzled their audience with a programme of Tchaikovsky and Mozart, at the Victoria Rooms. Rounding off the season, they returned in May to perform Grieg, Mozart, Leshnoff and Haydn. The BSO have an intimate relationship with the city of Bristol, having earned fame in the early 20th century as champions of British classical music. Their 2018/19 concert season proved, yet again, why they are a world-class ensemble. The current season has already seen works by Mendelssohn, Dvořák and Beethoven, and has lots more to come in 2020.

A collision of sound and vision

March and April saw the return of FILMIC, the annual festival of music and film programmed by St George’s Bristol, Colston Hall and Watershed. Filmic continues to explore and celebrate the rich, multi-faceted worlds that are created when film and music collide. Alongside the soaring themes of John Williams’ iconic score to E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial, minimalism was a key theme this year, with performances from experimental pianist Hauschka, legendary founder of the genre Terry Riley, and a FILMIC commission for the cult Bristol soundscapers Eyebrow.

da Vinci 500

In May, St George’s Bristol commemorated the five-hundredth anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death. This took the form of a collaboration, between solo-voice group I Fagiolini and Professor Martin Kemp. The emotional concert was held on the very date of da Vinci’s death, and included music fitted to his artwork, chosen by the group director Robert Hollingworth. For example, the ensemble performed a Bach fugue, with da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man projected above them, the idea being that the audience could hear precise and mathematical music whilst considering the precise dimensions of the human body.

Celebrating one of Bristol’s most influential figures

On a more modern front, Chineke! Orchestra, St George’s Bristol’s Orchestra in Residence, commissioned a piece from the young composer James Wilson. Performed in May, the subject of the music was the Bristol civil rights leader Paul Stephenson, who helped turn the cultural tide of Bristol back in the 1960s. After the premiere at St George’s Bristol, the piece was given at the Malcolm X Community Centre, free of charge.

“It was fantastic, both from a musical point of view and as an outreach event. When I was young, I was usually the only non-white person in the orchestra. Watching Chineke! was the first time in my life the orchestra looked more like me. This was a special, moving moment for me and many other people in the audience.

I am so grateful to St George’s for bringing this orchestra into the community. The piece paying tribute to Paul Stephenson was particularly poignant. Thank you St George’s, for showing classical music can be for everyone.”

-MP Thangam Debonnaire

Intimate opera and keyboard festivities

In the summer, St George’s Bristol hosted Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s classic tale of love and loss. The musicians, Opera à la Carte, are an increasingly popular chamber opera company, who perform with singers from the likes of Covent Garden and ENO. The Bristol Keyboard Festival, also at St George’s Bristol, in October, featured the Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. He played a selection of Bach, alongside some modern repertoire.

Another name to mention, whilst on the subject, is James Lisney. This sublime virtuoso gave the most incredible performance of a Beethoven piano sonata, when he came to St George’s Bristol in October. His powerful command of phrasing and dynamics is not to be missed at the next of his ‘Endgame’ concert series, in February 2020.

Masked magnificence

Returning to neo-classicism, Colston Hall saw the elusive Lambert hypnotise their foyer in the autumn. Enigmatically disguised behind a Sardinian bull mask, he played music that traversed genres to forge his own distinctive style. There was yet more contemporary classical to be had at Colston Hall in November, the remarkable Sebastian Plano came fusing classical and electronic elements.

2019 was a year of huge variety, then, for classical music in Bristol, and 2020 is sure to bring even more. Find out what’s in store with the latest listings for Colston Hall and St. George’s Bristol, and follow @Colston_Hall and @StGeorgesBris on Twitter for the latest announcements.

Words: Edward Christian-Hare