Archive for January 2008

Endymion at Blackheath

January 27, 2008
endymion2.jpg

Up the road again this morning, to a Blackheath Sunday concert by ENDYMION (who seem to have misguidedly adopted a new logo which plays fast and loose with the Greek alphabet – no doubt a source of great distress to linguists everywhere, who are still trying to recover from ‘TOYS “YA” US’.  You’re not called ‘SNDPSMIPHN’, are you?  Well then).

The Burghers of Blackheath remain a mystery to me.  Some Sundays, they will collectively decide the concert is not for them, and there may be just a couple of dozen people huddled in the recital room.  Today they were out in force – almost a full house, chattering excitedly.  The average age seems to be about 150 (where will the next generation of audiences come from??), so there was much clattering of sticks and whistling of hearing aids before the music began.    Thereafter, however, you could hear a pin drop (well, actually you could hear an infuriatingly running tap or overflow somewhere, which didn’t get turned off until the interval).

The Endymion Ensemble (founded in 1979 by my dear friend, bassoonist John Whitfield), used to be resident at Blackheath Halls, with an office in the lobby.  Good to welcome them back.  Today’s incarnation consisted of Michael Dussek (piano), Krysia Osostowicz (violin) and Stephen Stirling (horn) – who, if I am not mistaken, was playing in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House yesterday – busy fellow.

Beethoven’s last Violin Sonata (No. 10 in G, Op. 96) is so blithe and laid-back and generally un-Beethovenian that you catch yourself wondering ‘What did he mean by that?’  Nick Breckenfield’s programme note describes the first movement as ‘an intimate, relaxed, long-breathed soirée’ – which is nice.  His theory is that the Sonata was a ‘therapeutic’ response to Beethoven’s stormy relationship with the mysterious ‘Immortal Beloved’.

Krysia Osostowicz played the Sonata with an expression that flitted between rapt concentration and a beatific smile.  In the past, her sound has sometimes seemed to me to be a touch lean and stringy, but not today – rich, secure and expressive.  Perhaps she has a new fiddle?  For once, the Hall’s priceless jewel of a Bösendorfer grand sounded too plummy for Beethoven.  Maybe put the lid on the short stick (i.e. half open)?

Then we had György Ligeti’s Trio (1982) – strong meat (more…)

Kensington Symphony Orchestra plays Martinu…

January 24, 2008

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…and wins! – I was tempted to say.

(And a nice picture of Martinů on the cover of the programme!)

Back to my favourite crucible, Cadogan Hall, on Tuesday for an extraordinarily interesting concert by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra.

The programme began with Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments – a  wonderful and truly original piece, written in memoriam Claude Debussy.  On first hearing, the music appears to be constructed of dozens of little fragments, like a mosaic, before it hits the final chorale which was Stravinsky’s initial reaction to Debussy’s death in 1918;  I was familiar with the much-quoted analysis by Edward T Cone, who realised that each fragment is part of a set of parallel ongoing developments, so every time a particular turn of phrase or instrumental idea comes round again, it has evolved slightly from where it was the last time you heard it.  But the illuminating KSO programme note by Peter Nagle (one of the cellists in the orchestra:  here’s a link to his own blog on the concert) also points out links between the structure of the piece and the Russian Orthodox burial service.  So the work is more of a requiem for Debussy than we knew.

The KSO gave a rich and sonorous performance, firmly held together by Russell Keable’s conducting. From where I was sitting (in cheapskate seats right at the back under the balcony – actually very good, apart from an intrusive pulsating hum [in G]  – lots of bass coming up through the wooden floor!) it sounded terrific, with colouristic details I hadn’t heard before, particularly from trumpets and horns.  My overall reaction was ‘What an ear Stravinsky had!’  How could he have known that THAT combination of oboes, cor anglais and trumpets at that moment would produce THAT unique sound…?  I don’t know what Debussy would have made of it, but as a tribute from one supreme master of sonorities to another, it is a tremendous piece, and the performance was resonant (in all senses) and most impressive.

Then came Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto – the one that, uniquely, begins with the piano on its own.  Very beautiful, accurate and characterful solo playing by Leon McCawley, no less;  great orchestral playing, and I was particularly struck by the impeccable woodwind intonation in the first movement.  My only quibble was with the cadenza:  I don’t have a score, and I confess I don’t know the piece well enough to know whether this was Beethoven’s fault or the soloist’s, but it seemed to go on as long as the rest of the movement, far outstaying its welcome and (I regret to say) actually sending me to sleep!  The slow movement – ‘Orpheus placating the Furies’ according to Liszt – was rock-solid, the bouncing finale appropriately jolly.  Very fine.

Then, after the interval – the reason I had come:  Martinů’s Fantaisies Symphoniques (Symphony No. 6)(more…)

‘The Art of Chamber Music’ (Judith Weir Weekend, 19 Jan)

January 21, 2008

Judith Weir (c) Chris ChristodolouThe Schubert Ensemble (so named because their basic line-up is that of the ‘Trout’ Quintet) played music by Judith Weir and others, as part of the BBC’s Judith Weir Weekend, ‘Telling the Tale’.

Yet again – another concert, another nice old church… 

LSO St Luke’s’ is a small but magnificent 18th-century church by Nicholas Hawksmoor, marooned in a run-down area of East London and left roofless and derelict until rescued by the London Symphony Orchestra as their rehearsal space.  Very nice.

The trouble with Judith Weir is that, next to hers, everyone else’s music tends to sound woolly and self-indulgent.  Not so Martin Butler (a recently discovered enthusiasm of mine!), whose American Rounds came across as neat, colourful, energetic and fun.  Based on different genres of American folk music, its four movements were delightful, in Martin Butler’s charming laid-back idiom – mostly sort of pan-diatonic (imagine, for example, playing everything on the white notes of the piano but not necessarily in conventional chords), the second movement in particular full of tight irregular rhythms that at times reminded me of Martinů.  His trick of ending each movement with a throwaway quiet finish on a solo instrument was very engaging.  The piece will resound in my memory.

Then Judith Weir’s Music for 247 Strings (she has such a gift for titles! – 243 in the grand piano, four on the violin) – a bit of a ‘one-trick’ piece – quirky stops and starts, rhythmic unisons with occasional outbursts of temperament – but great fun.  A little folk arrangement, Arise, You Slumbering Sleepers, was followed by her Piano Quartet of 2000, broad, deep and hypnotic.

After the interval, David KnottsOn Such A Night As This Is! (an awkward title, unexplained in the programme notes) took a fun approach to bees, cattle and earwigs, tailored to the personalities of the players in the Schubert Ensemble.  As my bro commented, it did sound a bit like a Judith Weir imitation;  but it was a bit too pleased with itself and didn’t quite know when to stop – neither of which criticisms could ever be levelled at Judith’s own works.

What was I saying about Judith Weir’s flair for titles?  How could one not love a piece called What Sound Will Chase Elephants Away? for two double basses?  I say no more.

Then an early work with yet another brilliant title (more…)

Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra, Sunday 13 January 2008

January 17, 2008

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Another concert, another nice old church…

The church of St-Mary-at-Hill, off Eastcheap in the City of London, is hidden away down a side alley, landlocked and invisible among other buildings (not to mention impenetrable – as they forgot to unbolt the doors until five minutes before the concert!).  Built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677, it lost its box pews and much of its beautiful woodwork in a disastrous fire in 1988, but has been magnificently restored, with a bright, clean and uncluttered interior.  Resonant yet intimate, it makes a lovely concert venue for a small orchestra (strings 9.8.6.6.2, for those who care about such things) and a small audience.

Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1966, and has been a guiding light of my life (and many other people’s lives) ever since.  In past decades I have been privileged to play with them on a number of occasions:  now chances are rare, apart from the annual phone call from Brynly which goes – ‘Jo, I’ve messed up my diary.  Can you do HCO for me on…?’  Sadly, because of my own crazy diary, the answer is nearly always ‘no’ (the last time I managed it was in 1999 – a great experience). 

The orchestra has worked with many distinguished conductors and soloists (an early revelation to me was Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony conducted by a very young Andrew Davis), and on Sunday it was directed from the leader’s desk and/or solo position by Paul Barritt, who was evidently enjoying himself as much as they were, hot-foot from gigs in Belgium and Tring.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s ‘Fingal’s Cave’ Overture (The Hebrides) – sonorous, energetic, un-muddy and a delight (notwithstanding Paul Barritt’s cheeky viola joke in his introductory words).  I became aware of details I’d never heard before – always a good sign – such as the single oboe note that is held throughout the chugging harmonic sequence which may or may not, as Paul suggested, represent the sound of the paddle-wheel on Mendelssohn’s Hebridean ferry.

Then came Haydn’s all too rarely heard Sinfonia Concertante (more…)

Another silly site: oddee.com

January 16, 2008

carrot ad

More time-wasting funnees for your delight…

http://www.oddee.com/item_87332.aspx

 (15 Unfortunately Placed Ads — a sample collection from a VERY silly site)

thanks to London Lite (free paper) for that one!

Three cheers for the Green Blue and Black

January 13, 2008

rubbish 

When this leaflet came through the door, my first thought was that it was quoting Spike Milligan’s poem ‘Teeth’:

English Teeth, English Teeth!
Shining in the sun
A part of British heritage
Aye, each and every one.

English Teeth, Happy Teeth!
Always having fun
Champing down on bits of fish
And sausages half done.

English Teeth, HEROES’ Teeth!
Here them click! and clack!
Let’s sing a song of praise to them –
Three Cheers for the Brown Grey and Black.

(c) Spike Milligan, 1959

Then I realised it was Greenwich Council’s incredibly complicated new procedure for recycling rubbish.

Once upon a time, in the land of Ago (as a friend would have it), I lived in a flat down the road from here, and Greenwich Council would provide black plastic bags to put in our dustbins every week. 

Now we have a green wheelie bin for ordinary rubbish and a blue bin for ‘dry recyclables’.

From next week, we will still have these two bins, but the green one will be for compostable kitchen and garden waste – and we can’t use plastic bags in them.  So the stuff will sit in the bin and rot?  And they will give us a free ‘kitchen caddy’ to stockpile the stuff before it goes in the bin.  Hmm, that’ll be fragrant.  They advise us to line the caddy and bin with newspaper, or BUY compostable bags from them at vast expense.

As for any rubbish that doesn’t fall into either category – (more…)

Bassoon reed gadget

January 10, 2008
light plaque

My friend Tom has acquired a gadget – invented in Finland – which enables you to light up your bassoon reed from INSIDE so that you can see how even or uneven your scraping is.  Follow these links for details (and cunning illustrations):

http://www.doublereed.fi/eng/main.html

http://www.reedmaker.com/lightp.html

My first reaction was ‘what a silly idea’ and ‘what an expensive toy’ (especially as Tom had to get it imported from the USA and pay customs duty on it), but he writes enthusiastically:

I put three reeds on that I had nearly given up on and could see EXACTLY where I had gone wrong and where the reed was uneven. A few very minor scrapes on the irregular bits and I transformed two of them and the other is no longer a no hoper.

Anyone else have any experience of this marvellous device??  I’d certainly be glad to be able to scrape more effectively without wrecking my reeds before they have had an active life…
(It’s available for oboe reeds too.)

picture from Chris Van Os Double Reeds at http://www.kv191.nl/ — thanks

thanks to Tom Hardy http://www.tomhardybassoon.com/