Archive for September 2007

Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio

September 29, 2007

(I must write this while it’s still hot!)

The Cadogan Hall is not the ideal place for a big orchestra.  The very features that make it ideal for chamber music and small orchestras – clear acoustic, short resonance time, intimate space – mean that a big orchestra is squashed into too small a platform area, and its sound becomes blarey and unblending, overloading the acoustics of the hall and the ears of the audience.  (I know, I’ve played there!)  So it wasn’t perhaps possible to form a totally fair assessment of the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio – formerly known as the (very famous) Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, under such chief conductors as Alexander Gauk and Gennady Rozhdestvensky – playing there tonight as part of the Zurich International Concert Series.

They started with Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 – a terrific, in-your-face Russian symphony with great tunes and no pretensions to be anything other than what it is.  I was hoping to hear a recognisably ‘Moscow’ sound – confirming my thoughts about orchestras from different local traditions – but the wobbly horn just sounded tentative, and the woodwind were pale and under-characterised (and pretty painfully out of tune at times).  And there were some decidedly hesitant entries in places.  What was terrific, though, was the string sound – big, creamy, well-drilled, very precise, and underlaid by a solid line of double basses (eight of them) stretched out across the back of the platform in the good old-fashioned way.

Then things looked up, with Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  (‘What, that old thing?’)  As the conductor (the dapper, diminutive but evidently effective Vladimir Fedoseyev) raised his baton, the orchestra almost audibly relaxed, as if to say ‘This is OUR music…’ (which didn’t prevent a few inexcusable wrong entries – perhaps the orchestra has been travelling too much, or they all had hangovers?).  But the real surprise, and the star of the evening, was pianist Denis Matsuev (born in Siberia in 1975).  As he began, I thought at first ‘note-perfect precision, loud bright tone, tendency to rush the difficult bits – another boring Russian robot infant prodigy…’ – but no, soon came beautiful quiet pianissimos, some witty cross-hand gestures and a sly smile.  All with fantastic technique and total control:  this boy knows what he is about!  I don’t think I have ever really heard this piece properly before, or been made to listen to it so intently – I don’t think I had realised quite what a tricksy, subversive piece it is (right from the ‘let’s leave out the tune’ opening – even if he did pinch that idea from Beethoven).  And rarely before had I thought of Rachmaninov and Gershwin as American brothers under the skin. 

Matsuev’s ending was brilliant. (more…)

Favourite things

September 23, 2007

Some Sunday morning reflections…

I have been updating my ‘Favourite Things’ page (These are a few of…) and finding it to be quite a therapeutic exercise.  First, I realise I am enormously lucky, and grateful, to have so many wonderful things and experiences at my fingertips, or at least in my memories.  Secondly, however, I realise that there are holes:  for example, between the early 70s and the 2000s I was almost entirely innocent of both pop music and films, being far too busy with other things (I have yet to add the headings of Places, Islands, Cities, not to mention Food and Drink.  Or Singers.  Or People Who Changed My Life…).

Further, I realise that I have just too much stuff on here!  I am in now the position of having to ‘de-favouritise’ some things to avoid cluttering up the page and boring you, and myself, completely.

On the other hand, (more…)

London — Open House weekend

September 18, 2007

For one weekend a year only, London throws open its doors to let you explore all kinds of buildings, most of which aren’t usually open to the public – for free, and often with guided tours thrown in.

This has been going on for fifteen years, and I can’t believe this is the first time I have actually got myself together to go and look at some!

After some serious homework with the booklet, I whittled the 600 down to 18 possibles… In the end I managed four (plus some extras), and I’m very glad I did.

On Saturday I headed for the old City of London (the ‘Square Mile’) – normally deserted at weekends apart from the odd tourists;  an amazing palimpsest of old buildings and narrow streets overlaid with new buildings in the wake of war damage (and much of the City is still an ongoing building site).  I also had the extra bonus of coinciding with the Hell’s Angels funeral for the biker who was shot on the M40 – floats piled high with flowers, several black limos, and a procession of 1500 Harleys (with hardly a helmet in sight).  When they all revved and hooted at traffic lights it was an awe-inspiring experience.

Anyway… I got to see the ancient Guildhall, seat of City government since the Middle Ages, power base for Dick Whittington and many another Lord Mayor of London. Very informative (not to say refreshingly opinionated) tour guide, too.

Also on the Guildhall site were the Clockmakers’ Company’s Museum – a fantastic unexpected treat for those like myself with a horological bent – and a magnificent (though confusingly laid out) Art Gallery which includes some really famous Victorian paintings (along with some pretty boring ones);  and, down below,  bits of the original Roman arena.

Meanwhile I was dropping en route into any City churches that happened to be open.  No room to describe them here, but all four were fascinating.

Then I searched out Doctor Johnson’s house in Gough Square, hidden down an alley off Fleet Street.  I had to queue and it was quite a crush inside, but it was well worth it (and there was a very helpful talk by a very young volunteer guide).  Wonderful insight into the home life of the great man (and his surprisingly pokey rooms), plus the attic in which his team of Scottish scribes beavered away on the Dictionary which was his life’s work.


Found out!

September 16, 2007

There has been something of a game of hide-and-seek going on in the pages of FOUND Magazine’s comments in the past week.  The upshot is that I have been tracked to my lair! 

So any of you guys that find me here, hello and I’m very glad to make your acquaintance.  Do please feel free to leave comments on here, or e-mail me.  Thanks…

(Readers who don’t know what I’m talking about, you won’t know what I’m talking about!)   😉  

Phoenix Orchestra does Opera!

September 14, 2007

Yes:  the London Phoenix Orchestra’s next concert will be an amazingly full programme (ten items — incuding two full-sized overtures!) of operatic treats, starring Mary Nelson, Amos Christie and conductor Lev Parikian.  We’ve already started rehearsing for it, and it will be terrific.  It’s on 18 October at St John’s, Smith Square at 7.30;  do come, and bring all your stage-struck friends… Check the orchestra’s website for details.  Hope to see you there!

Click on this link to see the flyer:  Phoenix concert 18 Oct

Jonathan who?

September 13, 2007

 Well, here’s a thing…

Just now I was walking along Piccadilly (having discovered that Hatchards shuts at 7 pm – bother…) when I passed St James’s Church and saw a poster advertising a concert.  Indeed, streams of happy and excited punters were converging on the church porch as I stood

I looked more closely at the poster:  ‘An evening of music and wine, in aid of VSO.  The BBC’s Martha Kearney introduces music by Schubert, Chopin and Mendelssohn, performed by BBC Radio 3 Choir Of The Year, Chantage, and artists including Lucy Parham, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, Martin Prendergast, and… Jonathan Burton.’


It’s a very strange feeling, suddenly seeing one’s own name on public display (well, perhaps not if your name is Paul Smith, or Angela Gheorghiu).  A moment of panic:  had I perhaps agreed, months ago, to take part in a charity concert, and then forgotten all about it?  I started to reach for my diary;  hang on a minute… no, this can’t be right…


Vienna Philharmonic at the Proms

September 9, 2007

Once upon a time, orchestras from different countries – or even cities – had their own immediately identifiable characteristics:  London, Paris, Prague, Moscow…  These days, the Vienna Philharmonic is almost the last upholder of a regional tradition.  The clarinettist no longer has his reed tied on with string, and I couldn’t see whether the oboes were the Viennese ‘cotton-reel’ variety, but they still use rotary-valve trumpets and distinctive Viennese horns (even if they are made by Yamaha), and the double basses bow with an ‘underhand’ action (which is historically authentic, since double basses are technically members of the viol family, which bowed underhand, and the other string instruments belong to the upstart violin family.  End of history lesson).

I got excited to see 14 double basses and only 12 cellos listed in the programme;  here was living proof of the contention that Beethoven would have had more basses than cellos in his orchestra.  But alas, there were never more than eight basses on the platform at any one moment.
(‘Tradition’ has its bad aspects too.  Still ‘saucepan lid’ cymbals and poor percussion generally;  still very few women in the band, mostly tucked away on back desks;  and no named harpist in the programme, despite two on the platform – if you haven’t yet been accepted as a permanent member of the orchestra, you don’t get your name in the programme [unless you are ‘on trial’ at the State Opera] even if you have played with them for many years, like the hapless lady harpist in the 1970s.)

Anyway, it was a treat to hear the VPO at the Proms last week.  Silky strings, gorgeous brass, characterful woodwind;  impeccable tuning, immaculate phrasing, a suavity of music making based on 165 years of playing together… The combined pressures of the day job and a London Underground strike kept me away from Barenboim’s first Prom with the VPO last Monday, an echt-Viennese treat of Schubert and Bruckner.  The Bruckner (4th Symphony) sounded absolutely glorious on Radio 3.  I wish I had been there, but after Mahler 7 the night before I would not physically have been able to stand up for another 75-minute symphony! (more…)

…and we love Pavarotti!

September 6, 2007

Here’s a link to bring a smile to your lips as we remember the Great Man:

(It’s called ‘Pavarotti Loves Elephants’.)

Luciano Pavarotti did have a sense of humour and a sense of fun (and contrary to reports, he could act — he just couldn’t move very much!) — so if he ever saw this, no doubt he laughed along with the rest of us.

(For the literal-minded ones out there, the actual words he sings are ‘…e gli pensier’, meaning ‘…and the thoughts’.  It’s from ‘La donna è mobile’ from Verdi’s Rigoletto — ‘Woman is inconstant in her words and thoughts’…)

Personal note — it was an honour to work on Pavarotti’s farewell performances of Tosca at Covent Garden.  It’s true that his voice was absolutely magnetic, even in his last years.  I did meet him once, as he was climbing the stairs in front of me (with great difficulty).  He was certainly larger than life — his legs were like tree trunks!  No wonder elephants loved him. 

Ah well, we shall not see or hear his like again.  Unforgettable.

One tribute I read today said ‘The world has lost its voice’.

San Francisco Symphony at the Proms

September 2, 2007

Playtime is over… Rehearsals started (for us) at the Royal Opera House today. But I still managed to fit in two Proms – yesterday after an afternoon in the office, today a totally crazy day (Sunday!) which started with a lunch party in Barnet (thanks, Tony and all – very nice collection of family and old friends, sorry I couldn’t stay longer), then three hours of Iphigénie en Tauride, then a dash to the Albert Hall for a 7.00 start…

The San Francisco Symphony, under Michael Tilson Thomas (or Captain Beaky and his Band, as I shall henceforth unavoidably think of them), are one of the world’s top orchestras, and these concerts were a rare treat.  Yesterday’s began with Charles Ives’ Third Symphony, which rather passed me by (I know I ought to ‘get’ Charles Ives, as he was a great guy and I love his ideas, but it largely hasn’t happened yet).  Then the final scene of Salome, which was terrific (and reminded me why I love this opera;  can’t wait for our revival later this season) – though the orchestration seemed strangely subdued, maybe because MTT was trying (not always successfully) to avoid drowning Deborah Voigt – a problem when the orchestra is stacked up behind her instead of hidden away in a pit.  She did in fact sound a bit underpowered, and her German pronunciation seemed lispy and American (I was standing next to a German couple but didn’t pluck up courage to ask them what they thought). 

Then came Shostakovich 5, which was a knockout.  Such characterful orchestral sounds – this is not just subjective, as I was hearing overtones in double basses, trumpets and even violins that I’m not normally aware of in a live concert setting.  I particularly loved the reedy, uninhibited oboe (a very American, slightly old-fashioned sound), and the big jolly bassoon, and the fact that the brass (especially the horn solos) were always spot on, totally secure and in tune.  A tremendous performance.  Sometimes hard to see how Michael T T does it – his beat (waving those incredibly long arms about) often seeming to bear no relation to the music that comes out. It obviously works for them, though.  (Difficult to tell whether there actually was a certain lack of synchronization at times – that darned Albert Hall echo makes it impossible to be sure.)

The encore was Bernstein’s Candide Overture, at a rollicking pace.  When it came to the juicy second-subject tune, the German lady next to me burst into tears.  Bless. (more…)

Prom Programmes: is it just me…

September 1, 2007

…or is there something in Prom programmes that gets up your nose?  The printed programmes I mean.  On my first few visits this season I had the remains of a cold, and as soon as I opened the evening’s programme I would feel a catch in my throat and start coughing.  They still give me a tickle.  (I did wonder whether there are more intrusive coughers at the Proms than usual this year?)

There’s a note in the credits about the printers’ sustainability policy — ‘sourcing paper from FSC and PEFC accredited merchants … and using vegetable oil-based inks as standard’.  (They are Cantate, part of the John Good Group, ).  It’ll be those inks, I reckon.  No doubt the Proms operate like the Opera House;  several thousand copies will be printed and delivered ON THE DAY, so who knows what solvents and nasties are still around to come pinging off the page when you open your copy.  Hmmm.  Anyone else noticed this?

(PS — just looked at their site — they print the ROH programmes as well!  But those don’t make me cough.)