Looking West/Philharmonia Baroque review – soaring ambition and vividly projected Handel

Now in its 41st incarnation, the Ryedale festival spreads its events around 30 venues along the southern edge of the North York Moors national park. The pianist Christopher Glynn is its current artistic director; there’s real flair in his programming, which artfully mixes the familiar with the more challenging. This year’s festival included six world premieres, alongside emphases on the music of Handel and, in his 150th-anniversary year, Vaughan Williams.

Vaughan Williams, more specifically the inspiration and spiritual rewards he took from the natural world, was also the starting point for the festival’s most ambitious new work. Julian Philips’s, Looking West, to a text by Rebecca Hurst, weaves together three elements. The story of the Celtic saint Bega, who fled her native Ireland to avoid marriage to a Viking chief, and found sanctuary in what is now Cumbria, is counterpointed with the journey of a young man today retracing Bega’s journey through the fells, while Winifred Nicholson’s paintings of the coastline of the Lake District provide another layer.

It feels, though, rather contrived. A mezzo soprano (Rebecca Afonwy-Jones) tells Bega’s story; an actor (Alexander Knox) plays the rather pleased-with-himself traveller, while a soprano (Rebecca Bottone) evokes the images of Nicholson’s art, but across 75 minutes the three elements never cohere into something moving, let alone dramatic enough to justify its description as a “concert-theatre work”, despite its staging by Sally Ripley in Pickering’s imposing Church of St Peter and St Paul. The most striking elements were purely musical – the soaring soprano writing, and the striking sonorities that Philips drew from just eight instrumentalists, the Nova Music Opera Ensemble, conducted by George Vass.

The previous evening, in St Peter’s Church, Norton, the last of three Ryedale concerts from the San Francisco-based period band Philharmonia Baroque, on their first visit to the UK in more than a decade, focused on Handel. But there was space for something new here too – the first performance of Ancestor, a commission from Philharmonia Baroque shared between Tarik O’Regan (PBO’s composer-in-residence) and Errollyn Wallen. The binary piece consists of short settings for counter tenor (the excellent Tim Mead) of poems that O’Regan and Wallen had written for each other, both based upon an extract from the writings of the 19th-century women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller. Wallen’s setting, The Forms, is extrovert, highly ornamented, O’Regan’s The Golden Measure more contained and only slowly accruing intensity; it’s a nicely contrasted pairing.

Mead also featured in the Handel which surrounded the premiere, singing arias from Admeto, Giulio Cesare and Judas Maccabaeus; the tricky coloratura of Cesare’s “Al Lampo dell’Arme” was brilliantly negotiated, the angst of Ademeto’s “Chiudetevi miei Lumi” vividly projected. There were two of the Op 6 Concerti Grossi as well, all conducted with tremendous verve from the harpsichord by John Butt, who had taken over the concert at short notice from PBO’s director Richard Egarr, and obviously relished every moment.

The Guardian