Posted tagged ‘Martinu’

R I P Chris Hogwood

September 25, 2014

SSO Hogwood 1Very sad to hear of the passing of Christopher Hogwood (1941–2104).

Back in the summer of 1968, I had just left school and the family moved from Hitchin to Cambridge (where most of my father’s work was based). In those days the received wisdom was that ‘you couldn’t go to Oxbridge straight from school’, so I needed to find a ‘gap year’ course to prepare me for the big leap. We lighted on ‘Cambridge Tech’ (the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology, as it then was – now Anglia Ruskin University), which offered a one-year ‘Post-A-Level Music’ course for people in my position or otherwise with a year to spare. The college was in walking distance of our new house (which a secretary at the Tech had actually helped us find!) so every day I would trot over to the collection of ‘temporary’ Terrapin huts – creaking under the weight of grand pianos – which constituted the Music Department along with a car park full of garden sheds (each with chair, piano, music stand and electric heater), Male and female mobile loos, and the neighbouring (dark and freezing) Zion Baptist Chapel for extra performing space.

Course director and our tutor in Music History was a bright young chap named Christopher Hogwood, fresh from Cambridge and postgraduate studies in Prague (he was then 27). From the start, he was an inspiration to the rather random selection of musicians who were the eight of us on the course: ‘Wherever you’re going after this’, he said, ‘you’ll be learning about Beethoven and Mozart and Bach and all the usual people – so I’ll teach you about all the others.’ Thus it was that we learned about Louis Couperin, Froberger, John Cage, Janacek, Martinu, Penderecki – and ‘all the sons of Bach you haven’t heard of’ including WF and JCF.

He brought in David Munrow’s Early Music Consort (of which he was a founder member) to give us a dazzling lecture/demonstration; he brought in his clavichord, which he demonstrated and let us play; he gave me piano lessons (Brahms and Mendelssohn – not the repertoire we would instantly associate with him); he organised mini-concert tours using whatever talents and personnel were available – I particularly remember playing at the various Village Colleges around Cambridge; and outside official hours he took us on jolly trips and picnics…

Happy days – lots more memories I could recall. We kept in touch over the years; as his meteoric rise took him ever further afield, he maintained his base in his lovely house in Cambridge (although my memories go back to the one before!). To the last, we would exchange Christmas cards – his always especially printed, elaborate and witty.

I’ve dug out this 35mm slide of Chris (standing at the back, in shades) and some of our PAM group on a picnic in 1969… It’s how I’ll remember him – the twinkle, the grin, the giggle – although he hardly changed over the years.

Farewell, Chris, and thank you for everything.

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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…)

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…)

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…)

Martinu in Piccadilly

October 14, 2007

(‘I hope you’re going to give this a nice write-up on your blog’… Yes, Nick!)

Martinů is a tough nut to crack even for a professional orchestra.  So all credit to Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra, and their fearless conductor Peter Stark, for pulling it off not once but twice.

Last night’s concert at St James, Piccadilly, opened with a rarity, Martinů’s vaguely neoclassical short Overture of 1953.  It was energetic, precise and exciting, though with some slightly scrabbly strings in places.  Fine oboe solo in the middle section (and I’m not just saying that to please Nick Theobald).

Then the Rhapsody Concerto for viola, also from 1953, full of that weird plagal cadence that appears in all his late works (something to do with Martinů’s bump on the head – that’s a story for another time).  (For the harmonically minded, imagine F13 – an F7 chord with a D on top – going to C major.  Lifts the harmony up in a uniquely inspirational way.)  Soloist was none other than Paul Silverthorne, who has made the piece very much his own (and is preparing a definitive new edition of it).  Big generous tone, lovely playing, and Peter Stark had the orchestra swinging behind him in Martinů’s extremely tricky rhythms.  It’s a smashing piece too – if somewhat formless (well, ‘rhapsodic’) as Martinů tends to be:  only two movements, leave ’em wanting more…

(The concert nearly didn’t happen (more…)