Archive for the ‘bassoon’ category

I’m still here

October 9, 2013

IMG_1036Having acquired some rather snazzy business cards publicising my WordPress blog site, I felt it would be only fair to post something informative on it  – my blogging activity having fallen by the wayside, thanks to the ease and instantaneity of Facebook… so here’s a quick update.

Recent projects:

Surtitles
Nino Rota’s Il cappello di paglia di Firenze for Wexford Festival Opera (hilarious!)
Berlioz – Roméo et Juliette for the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall

Translations –
Songs for Elizabeth Watts recital in Bath
Richard Strauss songs for the Salmon Orchestra’s 50th birthday concert
Some interesting numbers for L’Arpeggiata at the Wigmore Hall

Programme notes –
English Chamber Orchestra concert on 9 October

Bassooning –
Invicta Wind Orchestra concert (including a featured contrabassoon solo!)
Salomon Orchestra 50th Birthday concert – contra in Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and Shostakovich Symphony No. 7.  A quite amazing occasion

Coming soon:

Surtitles –
Another Roméo et Juliette for the LSO
Act II of Tristan und Isolde for the LSO
Weber’s Euryanthe for Chelsea Opera Group
Offenbach’s Fantasio for Opera Rara
…and bookings ahead into 2015, thanks to Chelsea Opera Group, the Philharmonia and the CBSO

Programme notes, etc. –
Programme note, synopsis and pre-performance talk on Weber’s Euryanthe (Chelsea Opera Group, 23 November at Cadogan Hall:  be there!)
Programme notes for ECO concerts in November and December
Article for The Royal Opera for a forthcoming programme book (no idea what it will say yet…)

Translations –
A large batch of songs for the Kirckman Concert Society

Bassooning –
Beethoven 5 (contra) for the Sussex Concert Orchestra
The Rehearsal Orchestra – Rheingold weekend conducted by David Syrus (can’t wait!)

So ‘retirement’ is a continuing to be busy and exciting experience!  And we love living here on the South Coast.

Will try to keep you all posted on this site…

John Myatt, 1931-2011

May 27, 2011

Very sad to hear of the passing of John Myatt, my beloved bassoon teacher of 40+ years ago and so much more – clarinettist, fixer, conductor, source of inspiration and outrageous jokes, printing master, guru, family friend, clown, surrogate crazy uncle…

Aged 80, John had not been well for some time.  He had been living in retirement in Suffolk, with his devoted wife Janet and their equally devoted dogs.  I feel very fortunate that we were able to drop in and see him in March this year and catch up after so many years.  He was still on great form!

Happy memories of those days in Hitchin, and later in Cambridge, when he taught me almost all I knew about how to play the bassoon (and then generously passed me on to be finished off by Roger Birnstingl, who was another huge inspiration – I managed to catch up with him too at the recent William Waterhouse celebration at the Wigmore).

On Saturday mornings I would get on my bike (more…)

‘Cinderella’ at the Royal Opera House

April 24, 2011

Lovely dayout yesterday to matinee of Cinderella (Prokofiev ballet) at ROH. Rosie’s 6th birthday treat but we grownups adored it too! Glamour, magic, story clearly told, stunning sets and costumes, great music – reminding us what we go to the theatre for…

Classic Frederick Ashton choreography, with trademark Ashton figures in the hyperactive Jester (James Hay) and of course the pantomime-dame Ugly Sisters (James Wilkie and Thomas Whitehead, extremely funny). Yuhui Choe pretty and touching as Cinderella, Sergei Polunin likewise as her fairy-tale Prince. (But Rosie liked the Fairy Godmother – Francesca Filpi – best of all.)

Nice to see my old chum Mark Jonathan credited with the lighting, which was sumptuous and just right. And what a brilliant score – all the Prokofiev hallmarks of clarity, energy, ingenious and unexpected orchestration (particularly percussion, oboe, bassoon, contrabassoon and trumpet, all working incredibly hard! No ‘easy night off’ playing for the ballet in this one.) And he does that odd trick of putting a tuba on the bass line even in moving or touching passages – shouldn’t work but it does.

Not having seen a synopsis, I was fascinated by the reference to The Love for Three Oranges in the score, paralleled by the appearance of three oranges on stage… is this Prokofiev’s in-joke, or Ashton’s? Any insights welcome.

What a contrast to our dismal evening at The Tsar’s Bride earlier in the week. (No offence to Rimsky-Korsakov’s fine and sometimes amazing music, or to Sir Mark Elder’s equally fine but disappointingly ponderous conducting. But the ballet reminded us, by contrast, what a chore it is to sit through yet another grim updated staging that doesn’t fit the music and has us peering at a room full of dark-suited gents in a gloomy setting, trying to figure who is who and which one is singing. And that was just the first scene. Yes, we were sitting very high up in the Amphi! 😦

See review and photos of Cinderella at http://www.seenandheard-international.com/2011/04/09/prokofiev%e2%80%99s-cinderella-at-the-royal-ballet/

photo (c) Tristram Kenton

Berlioz — Grande Messe des Morts

October 11, 2010

Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts, Barbican Hall, Saturday 9 October 2010;  Crouch End Festival Chorus conducted by David Temple 

I played the Grande Messe des Morts with Cambridge University Music Society (in Ely Cathedral, circa 1970), so have always loved this amazing work (and the 3rd bassoon part is engraved on my brain forever).  And Diana is a Berlioz scholar (PhD) and member of the Berlioz Society, so how could we miss it.

 Conductor David Temple — despite his alarming resemblance to Alan Titchmarsh — did a great job.  He didn’t really conduct anyone except the choir, but the performance held together and the effect was overwhelming.  The Crouch End Festival Chorus delivered brilliantly — intonation, attack, energy, keeping pitch, dynamic contrasts, getting the words across, even synchronised sits and stands — all absolutely fine.  (Special bravas to the two lady tenors…)  The orchestra was the London Orchestra da Camera, which was a bit of a mystery — supposedly ‘ the country’s most talented freelance professional musicians’, but apart from the leader, John Bradbury (very fine), I didn’t recognize any of the names or faces.  They played really well — sonorous and in tune — though they could have done with more cellos and basses (6 and 4 not enough for this piece) and occasionally felt as if they could have done with more rehearsal too.  But they gave a magnificent performance.

 Tenor Robert Murray (a former Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House) was, well, quite divine in the Sanctus, his voice floating effortlessly over the assembled company (from his position behind the orchestra but in front of the choir — a good solution).

 Slightly taken aback by the dress code — gents of the orchestra in full white tie and tails, ladies in workaday all-black (mostly trousers), choir all in black.  Conductor in a black bin liner worn outside his trousers* (an unflattering fashion also affected by Tony Pappano at the ROH).

 And I haven’t even begun to enumerate all the things that are so extraordinary about the piece.  It has been described as ‘really an opera’, like the Verdi Requiem – but it’s also an experimental laboratory of orchestration (chords on three flutes accompanied by trombone pedal notes?  Two cors anglais?  Six pairs of timpani?  Not to mention those four brass bands up in the balcony — I defy anyone to hear it live and not have shivers up your spine, if not a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes.  What an extraordinary composer.)  Well, just get hold of the Colin Davis recording and hear for yourself!

 (Once upon a time I was involved in a TV recording of the Berlioz Requiem with Leonard Bernstein at Les Invalides in Paris (Napoleon’s resting place), the venue for which the work was composed.  Just thought I’d drop that in.  Now THAT was absolutely amazing.)

 Many thanks to the Berlioz Society for our excellently placed seats.  Would be interesting to hear from anyone else who was there?  Didn’t spot many familiar faces among the (not full) audience.

 If your own orchestra or choir ever gets an invitation to perform this piece, don’t hesitate!  As I recall from a hundred years ago, it’s great fun to play as well as to listen to.  And Berlioz writes for four bassoons, so he has got to be a good thing.

* For elucidation:  David Temple actually wore an open-necked black shirt outside his trousers.  Tony Pappano sports an oversize collarless black shirt for which my boss coined the pejorative (but graphic) description ‘black bin liner’.  Comfortable, perhaps — but a disconcerting sight at recent concert performances of Les pecheurs de perles when the entire ROH chorus as well as the orchestra and soloists were in full evening dress.

The BIG double reed day! – calling all oboes and bassoons

July 21, 2010

(…and contras!)

Calling ALL double-reeders, of whatever age or standard… Come to the BIG DOUBLE REED DAY at the Guildhall School of Music in London on Sunday 10 October.  Looks loads of fun as well as very educational.

Tutors include Gordon Hunt, Martin Gatt, Gareth Hulse, Meryck Alexander, John Orford and loads more.

Go to the website http://www.bigdoublereed.com/about.php and click on all the links for more details and how to reserve your place.

See you there. maybe?

Meanwhile, have a happy summer!

The Orchestra of St Paul’s…

April 26, 2010

…at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, yesterday (Sunday 25 April 2010), conducted by Ben Palmer.

The concert began with the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, beginning with a riskily fast tempo for the ‘slow’ introduction – the spooky music for the arrival of the statue of the dead Commendatore at Don Giovanni’s supper table;  but Ben Palmer knew what he was doing, and it worked.  The ensuing Allegro was a bit of a scrabble, the strings not quite in tune yet, the trumpets and timpani drowning everything out at their entries in the echoey acoustic of St Paul’s.  (Solution?  Harder timp sticks?  Just mark all their dynamics down a bit?  Make each entry a very quick diminuendo from a fortepiano?  Shame, as the ‘straight’ natural trumpets made a great sound, as well as looking terrific.) 

And the Overture ended with an awkward and stylistically out-of-kilter concert ending (necessary because in the opera itself the Overture doesn’t ‘finish’ but segues into the first scene in a different key).  Nul points to whichever publisher perpetrated that one – there are much simpler solutions that work fine.

Next came the reason we were there – my niece Rosie Burton playing the Hummel Bassoon Concerto.  There is something of a shortage of decent bassoon concertos (well, if you don’t count the 36 or so by Vivaldi, and one that probably isn’t by Rossini); the teenage Mozart wrote one, which is famous because it is by Mozart but is really not up to much (though you wonder what the other half-dozen or so he is alleged to have written might have been like).  Weber wrote the greatest of all, in 1811;  and that’s about it, apart from a few modern ones.  No Beethoven, Brahms Dvořák or Elgar… And then there’s Johann Nepomuk Hummel. He was an interesting chap – student (and lodger) of Mozart, pupil of Haydn and Beethoven, wrote some fine (and very jolly) chamber music, including the wittiest Wind Octet ever written;  and he wrote his Grand Concerto for Bassoon in 1805.  It isn’t heard very often, because it is VERY difficult:  not only is there lots of whizzing about in semiquavers, but the writing is awkward and un-bassoony – double octaves, huge skips and ever-widening arpeggio patterns – so the piece is even harder than it sounds.

Rosie did a fantastic job, performing with note-perfect accuracy, style, polish and fun, and above all with a gorgeous sound:  warm, rich tone, smooth and nutty, and totally under control at all times.  I am very envious! – and very proud.

After the interval, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D – an ‘early’ work that isn’t heard as often as it should be or used to be. Ben Palmer once again went for broke in his daringly fast tempi, but they paid off.  And this time the stabs of trumpets and timpani were perfectly judged, providing Beethovenian ‘punctuation’ with point and clarity but never drowning the rest of the band. 

The gently lilting ‘slow’ movement was refreshing – special praise for Tom Hardy on bassoon, along with the other woodwind principals – though I would have preferred just a little more room to breathe for the bouncy cello theme:  the tempo is Larghetto, after all. 

Conversely, the Scherzo felt as if it could have done with being even quicker.  But it made its Beethovenian mark, especially the moment in the Trio when the unison strings say ‘We’re going to play in F sharp major now’ and the rest of the orchestra says ‘Oh no you’re not!’

The Finale was an absolute rocket, and brilliantly effective.  Occasionally it seemed to totter on the verge of rushing out of control, but never quite did.  Ben Palmer captured perfectly Beethoven’s shock tactics and rough wit in the handling of the opening ‘yah boo’ motive, and conversely the hushed moment in the Coda when pizzicato cellos and basses step down and down into new harmonic realms, ‘as if’, in the words of Sir George Grove quoted by my brother Tony in his programme note, ‘we had passed through a door and were in a new enchanted world’.

Talking of which, one small disappointment was the presence of just one double bass – who was, however, always rock solid and perfectly audible;  but even with a small orchestra one surely needs two or three basses, especially as Beethoven himself apparently preferred to have more basses than cellos. 

Nevertheless, this was the most exciting and compelling performance of Beethoven 2 I have heard in a long time, or possibly ever;  by this time the orchestra was perfectly in focus and in full steam, and Ben Palmer brought it to life and made sense of the piece in ways I had certainly never heard before.  Great concert.

more about the orchestra on their website: http://www.orchestraofstpauls.co.uk/

Reed Rage bassoon quartet

February 23, 2010

Definition: Reed Rage. An affliction commonly found in double reed players, especially bassoonists. Less serious than Reed Neurosis suffered by oboe players. It involves leaping up and down on reeds that don’t work or stabbing them into music stands…

 So… way back in October, we turned out to the wilds of Hampstead for a concert by REED RAGE, a brand new bassoon quartet which just happens to have my niece Rosie in it…

 More about them, and biographies of the four players (and their instruments), from their website – a very swish production which I suspect Tom had a hand in:

 http://www.reedrage.co.uk

 They are Rosie Burton, Alex Davidson, Llinos Owen and Tom Hardy.  The occasion was organised by Hugh Rosenbaum, who hovered over the proceedings like a benevolent but slightly anxious mother hen (and wrote a glowing review for Double Reed News afterwards! – Issue 89, Winter 2009, page 33).  The tiny room at Burgh House was packed to the rafters, and extra chairs had to be sent for to accommodate all the bassoonists, pupils, relations, friends and other interested parties who were eager to squeeze in.

The three girls are all alumnae of the Southbank Sinfonia, and Tom is a veteran of – well, lots of things.  Each of the four had a terrific, characterful sound, and as a quartet their blend, unanimity of attack, discipline and intonation were a joy.  Most of the contra duties fell to Tom, although Alex’s Big Bertha got a look in too.

The programme managed to avoid the usual bassoon quartet chestnuts (though it would have been nice to hear Alan Ridout’s Pigs played really well) and instead gave us wide-ranging repertoire, from Senaillé and Fucik to Prokofiev, Stravinsky and beyond, mostly in arrangements – the arrangers including Boris Turner (a.k.a. Rosie Burton), Graham Sheen, and Andrew Skirrow (who turned out to be an old chum of Tom’s).

The concert also included the European premiere of Dance of the Polar Bears by Gernot Wolfgang, enterprisingly commissioned by a consortium (including Hugh Rosenbaum) from this highly regarded Austrian-born composer, who currently lives in Los Angeles.

It was concentrated, jazzy and lots of fun – and very difficult (as I know from having taken part in the first UK read-through… but that’s another story).  Some of the audience thought it perhaps outstayed its welcome;  I was too busy listening to notice.

The programme concluded with The Lone Arranger by Philip R Buttall;  we were invited to count the number of quotations from familiar works that crept in along the way.  I’ve forgotten the answer…

But the highlight for me was probably Andrew Skirrow’s arrangement of The Poacher (which tickled Hugh Rosenbaum, as he had laid on Lincolnshire Poacher cheese for the interval – and very nice it was too). 

 Here is an audio clip, courtesy of Tom:

[click on the arrow — and wind the volume up to max…] 

The point of writing this review now – four months after the event – is that Reed Rage has unfortunately been in abeyance since Llinos was involved in a rather nasty car accident.  We’re glad to hear she has completely recovered, and wish her well;  meanwhile, Reed Rage are gearing up for another evening of delights – so watch (and listen to) this space…

 Thanks to Tom for the invitation to write this piece, and for the audio clip.  And to the Reed Rage website for the picture.

The Rehearsal Orchestra — Mahler 9

January 18, 2010

Amazing weekend playing Mahler’s 9th Symphony (4th bassoon and contra!) with The Rehearsal Orchestra under Lev Parikian.

 Orchestra leader was Eddie Reid, whom I well remember from the orchestra at English National Opera; serried ranks of magnificent players – amateurs and students – from all over the country, forming Mahler’s huge line-up. Shame there was no list of participants, as I didn’t know many of them apart from a couple of the other bassoons, and there were some really outstanding players.

Mahler 9 is an extraordinary work. written at the end of his life – subtitled by Leonard Bernstein ‘four ways of saying farewell’… Among Lev’s many illuminating and inspiring comments was the observation that the opening phrases represent ‘Mahler’s irregular heartbeat’ (which was soon to kill him) – and that the entire musical substance of the hour-and-a-half-long work is contained in the first six bars.

Saturday’s rehearsals were at Henry Wood Hall, a handsome deconsecrated 18th-century church much used by professional orchestras for rehearsals – well-lit, well-appointed and with a nice café in the crypt. For Sunday we moved to The Warehouse in Theed Street, in the hinterland behind Waterloo Station; a less comfortable venue but actually not too bad. Over the two days, Lev steered us through the complexities of the four movements, culminating in a ‘public’ run-through (I think there were a few brave souls upstairs listening) which was far more than a fair bash, and by the end was absolutely spellbinding.

Many thanks to Lev for his inspirational conducting (and cool head in adversity!); to Contac for suppressing my horrible cough for the duration; to Diana for pointing me in the direction of the Orchestra (and for playing too, and for stalwart ferrying of bassoon and contra as well as her double bass! – and for making the weekend such an enjoyable shared experience); to Caroline Stockmann for her tireless encouragement and fundraising (we each paid a fee to be there, but she told us that we are additionally being subsidised at between £75 and £115 per head: any generous musical millionaires out there?); and to Anne-Marie Norman for getting it all together – a fearsome administrative task executed with a light touch and a wry smile… What a great institution, and a great experience. Thank you!

halloween bassoon

November 1, 2009

Happy Halloween!
This is from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Halloweenbassoon

picture from Geoff Browne — thanks!

Salomon Orchestra, 3 March 2009

March 4, 2009

salomon

London has dozens of amateur orchestras, each proclaiming itself ‘the finest amateur orchestra in the capital’.  Well, the Salomon Orchestra really is the finest non-professional orchestra in London.  Founded in 1963, it contains some of the best players on the circuit.  I grew up with these guys (and girls) and a surprisingly large number of them seem to have been in the orchestra for as long as I can remember!  (– which makes one worry where the next generation of really good amateur players is coming from…)

Their concerts are always a treat, and Tuesday’s was something special.  It was interesting to see how many distinguished amateur orchestral players were in the St John’s audience:  many were current or ex-members of Salomon who weren’t actually playing in this concert, but others had come to admire – a sign of the esteem in which this orchestra is held.

Unlike most other amateur bands, Salomon doesn’t rehearse on a weekly basis, but has a series of concentrated rehearsals just before each concert.  This really pays off.  Nor does it have a regular conductor;  this pays off too.  Guest conductor Dominic Wheeler electrified the band into disciplined playing of tremendous precision, energy and musicianship.

The concert opened with Benjamin Britten’s Fanfare for St Edmundsbury – three solo trumpets at corners of the gallery, playing three different fanfares in different keys, separately and then together.  As so often with Britten, a simple trick, but very effective (you think ‘I wish I’d thought of that!’).

Then Britten’s unjustly neglected Violin Concerto from 1939, an ambitious and accomplished work from a 26-year-old composer with a firm grasp of contemporary musical developments across Europe (and the world:  the score was completed in Canada and the USA).  In its breadth and easy authority it reminds me of Bartok’s 3rd Piano Concerto, although there are astonishing echoes (or pre-echoes) of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Soloist was the assured and hugely talented Sara Trickey, who conveyed the work’s searing intensity with power and brilliance.  If the last movement seemed to outstay its welcome, that might have been my fault rather than Britten’s.

After the interval, Dvořák’s unfamiliar Othello Overture – alas, unfamiliar to the orchestra too, it seemed:  I guess the rehearsal time had been mostly taken up with the other works on the programme.  But despite uncharacteristically ragged ensemble and some wrong entries, the performance was powerful and compelling, and Dvořák’s sonorities were beautifully conveyed (who else would score a chord for brass with just a cor anglais added?).

Finally, the piece I had come for:  Martinů’s Symphony No. 6 (more…)