Archive for the ‘orchestras’ category

Martinů’s Juliette, BBC SO/Belohlávek

March 31, 2009

julietta_webTo the Barbican on Friday 27 March for a concert performance of Martinů’s opera Julietta, or rather ‘Juliette’, as it was given in Martinů’s own French (re-) translation – a slightly odd decision given that the conductor and some of the cast were Czech. Still, the effect of the French vocal declamation was to make the music more than usually reminiscent of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Comprehension was ensured thanks to my friend Paula Kennedy’s scrupulous surtitles – which she would have been just as happy to do from Czech!

Kenneth Richardson provided a slick and effective ‘semi-staging’; singers basically wore evening dress and sang from scores, but the action was spiced up with minimal costumes and props, carefully thought out entrances and exits, and subtle lighting. American tenor William Burden was the tireless protagonist, the hapless Michel, who finds himself adrift in a land where no one can remember anything.  Magdalena Kožená was the appropriately distant and mysterious Julietta, looking lovely and vaguely 1930s in a floral frock.

Great character roles from a large cast including Jean Rigby and Rosalind Plowright, Roderick Williams and (outstanding) Andreas Jäggi.

Jiří Bělohlávek conducted the BBC SO in coruscating form – amazing colours and atmosphere. What an extraordinary score! I remember it from ENO in the 1970s (and from my Supraphon LPs), and its hypnotic power remains undimmed. It struck me as an amazing achievement to have written a full-length opera which is uniquely in his own idiom and no one else’s: apart from the echoes of Pelléas and the fact that the spooky opening bars are reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Les noces, one almost never felt ‘Oh yes, that bit’s Puccini, or Verdi, or Richard Strauss…’ as one does with all too many 20th century operas (including Britten!).

Martinů wrote the opera in 1936-7, to a play by his friend the French surrealist Georges Neveux. Martinů is probably an acquired taste, but I love his music. It’s the 50th anniversary of his death, so we are fortunate in getting more of it this year than we usually do.

Great to see a packed hall and so many luminaries in the audience – including, I was happy to see, Chris Hogwood, hotfoot from conducting the dress rehearsal of Dido and Aeneas + Acis and Galatea at the Royal Opera House only a few hours earlier (yes it was a long day).  I reminded Chris that it was he who introduced me to Martinů all those years ago (39 actually) at Cambridge Tech

There’s a nice review here: http://thoroughlygood.wordpress.com/2009/03/28/juliette-bbcso-belohlavek-martinu/

picture: front cloth from a Czech production of the opera

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…)

London Phoenix Orchestra — A Little Light Music

February 9, 2009

phoenixlite

Yes, we’re here again! Lev Parikian conducts the London Phoenix Orchestra in a scintillating programme of American and Russian light music, with overtures to two great shows – Gershwin’s Girl Crazy and Bernstein’s Candide – and Gershwin’s brilliant tone picture, An American in Paris.   And there are three nice little pieces by Leroy Anderson (whose centenary was last year), and the so-called ‘Jazz Suite No. 2’ by Shostakovich, which isn’t jazz at all but is, er, a lot of fun (especially for the saxophonists).  Oh, and Shostakovich’s ‘Tahiti Trot’, better know to you and me as ‘Tea for Two’.

(And I get to play the contra!  That was a nice surprise.)

It’s on Tuesday 24 February (which happens to be my birthday) at Cadogan Hall

BE THERE!!

Phoenix Orchestra — again

November 27, 2008

phoenix02_12_08

Yes, the London Phoenix Orchestra has another concert next week.  It’s a ‘rush hour’ concert at St Andrew’s, Holborn, in the city of London, at 6.30 pm on Tuesday 2 December.  Nice short programme, so we’ll all be in the pub by 7.30 (you included, if you come!).

Catherine Lindley leads the orchestra, Lev Parikian conducts.  Ravel‘s stately but slightly weird Menuet Antique is followed by the amazing Ellie Lovegrove in the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, then we finish with an ambitious choice — Messiaen’s L’Ascension.  Extraordinary organ-like textures and dazzling colours.

Don’t miss it!

Sorry, chaps

November 1, 2008

So many wonderful things since I last wrote – pressure of work and other activities has prevented me blogging them, much as I wanted to.  So here is a list of what I should have written about, for your edification and delight…

Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra concert, Saturday 4 October – especially the Schumann Konzertstück for four horns, magisterially played by Richard Lewis, Jo Towler, Duncan Gwyther and Liz Kadir.  Wow.

Haydn’s Creation at the Korean Full Gospel Church in Raynes Park, Sunday 12 October – lots of fun, the Koreans charming and lovely, my contra bottom B flat much appreciated!

The English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, Wednesday 15 October – Tippett, Britten (Les Illuminations with stunning young soprano Mary Bevan), plus some works by Arab composers including the brilliant and hilarious Saxophone Concerto by Waleed Howrani – a perfect Last Night of the Proms piece?

Celebrity Recital at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 19 October – Emma Johnson, Julian Lloyd Webber, John Lill, surprisingly not a full house:  a treat of Beethoven and Brahms clarinet trios, the Weber Grand Duo Concertant, Julian playing two of his father’s pieces (with Andrew in the audience), and John Lill scorching our eyebrows off with the Chopin C minor Nocturne and the amazing Prokofiev Toccata

Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran at the Opera House, with Juan Diego Florez

Our very own Phoenix Orchestra concert (see previous post) on Thursday 23 October, especially the wonderful and inexhaustible Tom Poster in the Rachmaninov 3rd Piano Concerto

The Esbjerg Ensemble at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 26 October:  Nonet by Louise Farrenc, Poulenc’s Sextet for piano and wind (fantastic), the Schumann Piano Quintet (wonderful as ever).  Slightly dour Danish group, lifted to a higher plane by the tiny, sparky, beaming and incredibly accomplished pianist Marianna Shirinyan (who she??)

And the Brodsky Quartet at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 29 October – Beethoven Razumovsky No. 1 (what a wonderful piece), Tchaikovsky Quartet No. 1, and two little Stravinsky numbers (Concertino and Three Pieces) which were spellbinding.

Now I’m off to rehearse contra in Boléro (don’t ask)…

Normal service one of these days!

thanks for the picture, Diana…

Phoenix Orchestra concert next week!

October 18, 2008

Yes, the London Phoenix Orchestra has a wonderful concert coming up next Thursday, 23 October at 7.30 pm, at St John’s, Smith Square, London SW1.

Great programme, beginning with Glinkas rollercoaster overture Ruslan and Ludmila, then Rachmaninov‘s not so well-known Piano Concerto No. 3 with soloist Tom Poster;  then Sibelius‘s SYMPHONY NO. 3, again not so well known as some of his others but a little gem.

Don’t miss it!  our conductor, as always, will be the ever amazing and inexhaustible Lev Parikian, leader Catherine Lindley.

See you there…

The Berkeley Ensemble

October 3, 2008

Another nice old London church, another concert…

This was at St George’s Hanover Square, a fine 18th-century building designed by John James in 1721-24, with connections with George Frederick Handel.  Broad, handsome, light and spacious, it is a fine church and a great venue for music (…but MIND YOUR HEAD if you’re going to the loo 😦 …)

Wednesday’s lunchtime concert was part of the Midweek Music in Mayfair series, given by the BERKELEY ENSEMBLE, a chamber group formed from members of the Southbank Sinfonia – including my niece Rosie on bassoon.

They played two pieces:  Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K581, and the Octet by Howard Ferguson (1908-1999) – surrealistically misprinted in the programme as ‘Maynard Ferguson (1928-2006)’, a jazzer who did indeed have an octet but didn’t write this one.

The Mozart featured John Slack on clarinet – one of the current breed of ultra-cool clarinettists, which is nice because he doesn’t intrude when it isn’t his solo, but he seemed almost too laid back to the point of disappearance on occasion, and it took him a while to warm up to pitch (which is odd:  shouldn’t the strings have tuned to him?).  Oddly, the first violin, Tatiana Bysheva, also seemed to disappear at times, but that might just have been from where I was sitting.  Otherwise the strings provided a rock-solid support, warm, dependable and very pleasing – Rebecca Mathews on 2nd violin, Dan Shilladay on viola (relishing his ‘sighing’ moment in the second Trio of the Minuet:  I always imagine that this part was originally played by Mozart himself), and, above all, Gemma Wareham holding everything together from below with her authoritative (but discreet) cello playing.   [click here for biographies of the players]

I came away thinking (as always) ‘What a wonderful piece this is’, which was the right reaction!  The clarinet (as played in the 1780s and 90s by Anton Stadler) brought out the best in Mozart;  I can never quite work out whether the thematic unity of the Quintet is deliberate, or if Mozart just came out with the same thematic shapes whenever he imagined the sound of the clarinet.  Either way it makes for a most satisfying and tightly-knit experience.

Then the Howard Ferguson:  I have to confess (more…)

Proms: RSNO/Deneve, Chicago Symphony Orch/Haitink

September 11, 2008

Bernard Haitink

Bernard Haitink

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now seriously back at work full-time so no time for lengthy blog, alas.  However, I must celebrate the end of my Prom-going season which ended with a couple of crackers!

 

Stéphane Denève and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (Saturday) gave a stunning performance of Debussy’s La Mer – dazzling orchestral detail, lovingly shaped, deeply felt.  Denève (conducting without a score) may have lingered slightly over some of the significant turning points, but I felt this was absolutely ‘his’ music and he was totally inside it.  Lovely orchestral playing, especially the finely-tuned woodwind and acutely pointed trumpets (if you see what I mean).  Unbelievably quiet pianissimos when required, and blazing loud passages that seemed to point to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (never thought that about La Mer before).  (But where were the disputed fanfares in the last movement?)

 

(Going backwards through their programme…) The less said about their Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough the better.  Hough was having an off night (nerves?), stumbling and hurrying all over the place.  The orchestra was stodgy, dull and ragged.  It felt like a bad ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ performance.

 

Thea Musgrave’s ‘Rainbow’ was nice – pretty, simple, appropriately colourful, did what it said on the tin.

 

Albert Roussel’s Bacchus and Ariadne Suite No. 2 was a revelation – great music, chirpy, quirky, powerful and dangerous.  Lovely stuff.

 

On Tuesday it was Bernard Haitink and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – I couldn’t make the Mahler 6 the previous night, so this one was not to be missed (and very crowded it was too).

 

One rarely hears ‘big-orchestra’ Mozart these days – although it could be argued that (more…)

Prom: Gürzenich Orchestra, Mahler 5 etc.

August 23, 2008
Angelika Kirchschlager

Angelika Kirchschlager

After the previous night’s Prom – when Jiři Bělohlávek drew a lovely light, fluffy sound from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Dvořák’s bouncy and witty Slavonic Dances, and Janáček’s beautiful but maddeningly unfocused little-known early opera Osud – what a contrast yesterday to hear the rich glowing sound of the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne under Markus Stenz.

Their weird back-to-front programme – Mahler 5, some Schubert songs, Beethoven’s Overture Leonore No. 3 – turned out to be a re-creation of the first performance of the Mahler in 1904 (I hadn’t realised it had been written for this orchestra).  Plus – to bring us up to date – a chunk of Stockhausen, which succeeded in driving a lot of the audience away after the Mahler (rumour has it that it was scheduled to be a separate late-night Prom, but perhaps the Powers That Be had thought no one at all would have turned up).  As it was, the Albert Hall was respectably full but not bursting.

From the first tutti, the Mahler had an authentically ‘European’ sound:  big, colourful and full of character, supported on the cushion of those gorgeous strings – especially a phalanx of eight double basses across the back of the platform, where they became the beating heart of the orchestra, always supporting, always making their presence felt even in the softest pianissimo (and all bowing ‘underhand’ in Continental fashion).

Varieties of orchestral layout are a continuing fasciation;  the oddity of this one was that the brass were ‘back to front’, with the trumpets on the outside and the trombones and tuba nearest the middle.  This had the bonus of placing the tuba next to contrabassoon and double basses – good idea.  If I am not mistaken, the second violins sat opposite the firsts in the Mahler, but the violas went there for the Beethoven.  (The Stockhausen had a weirdly random layout, not explained in the programme).

‘A symphony must be like the world – it should embrace everything’, said Gustav Mahler:  it could be claimed that Mahler’s Fifth is the greatest of his symphonies, and one of the greatest of all symphonies (and I’m not just saying that because of its terrific contrabassoon part!).  The Gürzenich Orchestra gave it all they’d got, which was indeed plenty, although both the first trumpet (in his opening fanfare) and the first horn (in his solos in the huge Scherzo) were not entirely accident-free – though they improved once they had got over their opening wobbles.  Yet somehow, despite tremendously characterised and colourful wind playing, the sound remained slightly one-dimensional and the performance didn’t ever quite take off.  When Markus Stenz reached the final bombastic peroration, it didn’t seem to have earned its place in the scheme of things.  And heaven knows what he thought he was beating at the beginning of the (admirably unsentimental) Adagietto.

Stockhausen’s Punkte was a kind of smudged pointillist canvas (more…)

more Proms — Messiaen, Varese

August 20, 2008

Still piling on the Proms — 14 so far I think. 

Disappointments:  Boulez conducting Janacek‘s Sinfonietta (careful, not exciting) and Glagolitic Mass (I am not at all convinced by the reconstructed ‘original’ version, which seemed muddy and diffuse.  Composers’ second thoughts are usually the right ones!). 

Highlights:  Barenboim‘s East-West Divan Orchestra (why did nobody explain their name in the programme?  It’s from a book of Goethe poems, I think) — I feared the worst from his VERY slow upbeat at the beginning of Brahms 4, but it was fine.  Great the way the players all lunge and sway about in a most un-English fashion!  Special praise for bassoonist Mor Biron, who was, I thought, the best of the solosts in Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante, then excellent in the Brahms, and finally wide awake and full of character in Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale at the late Prom — another highlight, thanks to Patrice Chéreau‘s craggy, louche, hilarious, touching and very French rendering of ALL the characters (and the Narrator). 

More highlights:  Jennifer Bate playing Messiaen on the mighty Albert Hall organ:  L’Apparition de l’église eternelle is a piece I have always loved (an early work), its ‘granitic’ columns of sound rising mysteriously from nothingness and then sinking back again, like an immense and slightly sinister science-fiction version of Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie.  Then La Nativité du seigneur in all its hour-long splendour, quite wonderful and with a shattering ‘Dieu Parmi Nous’ at the end.  Whoooo!

Last night — Tuesday 19 August — was a (very thinly attended) feast of live orchestra (BBC Scottish) plus electronics — more Messiaen (the late and pretty Concert à quatre), Varèse, and Jonathan Harvey (including an ambitious if over-long new work, Speakings, using the orchestra as a giant speech synthesiser:  interesting sounds, but I was put off by the inelegant ‘bending’ noises the players had to make — especially the oboe — which I know was the point of the piece but struck me as undignified…). 

Harvey’s electronic warhorse, Mortuos plango, vivos voco, featuring a bell and his choirboy son, was a knockout — the composer himself presiding, like a gently beaming silver-haired angel, at the sound desk.  But the highlight for me was Varèse’s Poème electronique — an amazing feat of technology for 1958, clever, imaginative, funny, and — at eight minutes long — not outstaying its welcome.

I’m certainly not complaining about any of ‘my’ Proms — a continuing feast of all kinds of music and such a privilege to be able to experience ‘live’.  Time for several more before I have to return to real life!

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photo of Messiaen by Malcolm Crowthers (c)