Posted tagged ‘Schoenberg’

Southbank Sinfonia (twice)

March 14, 2008

sbs2.jpg The Southbank Sinfonia is a brilliant idea – a ‘semi-professional’ orchestra employing young instrumentalists between college and a professional career.  To judge by their list of alumni now in orchestral positions, it works.

The orchestra is the brainchild of conductor Simon Over.  It has no state funding (surprise surprise!) and is maintained by a large roster of generous supporters and huge amounts of goodwill, particularly through partnerships with ‘grown up’ orchestras such as the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who provide coaching, playing opportunities and ‘sit-ins’ alongside professional players.  And imaginative sponsors like accompanist Malcolm Martineau who provides free refreshments at concerts – hooray!

Monday’s concert was part of the lunchtime recital series at the Royal Opera House, though moved into the spacious (and echoey) surroundings of the Paul Hamlyn Hall (formerly the Floral Hall).  A slightly rum programme…

It began with a Vivaldi Concerto for Two Trumpets, bravely performed without a conductor.  The soloists (Christopher Seddon and Rob Wallace) were two cool dudes to whom evidently nothing was a problem – they enjoyed every minute and played faultlessly, stationing themselves antiphonally either side of the band.

Two quibbles:  how could anyone think it’s OK to perform any kind of baroque concerto without a keyboard continuo??  Just because it ‘sort of’ works to have just a cello and bass accompanying the soloists, that doesn’t make it right.  And no, the slow movement is not just ‘a mere six bars long… a passage of modulation played by the strings alone’ – which is how they played it, earnestly and meaninglessly:  no, it’s the basis for something – keyboard improvisation?  Violin improvisation?  (Probably not the trumpets, as they need the rest.)  Something has to happen, and somebody has to take a decision about what.  Awful sinking feeling that STILL nobody in the music colleges is taught anything beyond the received nineteenth-century ways of playing things.

They need to read a certain series of helpful books…

The orchestra was joined by Australian soprano Anita Watson, a rising star in the ROH’s firmament and a radiant smiling presence (I previously enjoyed hearing her in Donizetti’s Rita – read more here).  Her choice of arias – Mozart’s ‘Nehmt meinen Dank’ and the ‘Et incarnatus’ from the C minor Mass, and Richard Strauss’s ‘Morgen’ – suited her to perfection.  Lovely violin solo in the Strauss, from leader Tatiana Byesheva.

In between Anita Watson’s items, Graham Sheen conducted his arrangement of five Danzas Gitanas by Joaquin Turina.  The rather vague programme note did not describe the individual movements or even tell us what forces Graham had arranged them for.  As far as I could see, it was a wind decet (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns) with extras – piccolo, cor anglais – plus two trumpets and a double bass.  Smashing arrangements, full of vivid colours and rhythmic life.  I slightly felt that the clarinets had a raw deal – perhaps because the trumpets had grabbed their share of the melodic interest?  Very nice anyway, and must have been great fun to play.  I hope they’ll be published.

And a definitely rum item to finish – Manuel de Falla’s Seven Spanish Popular Songs, but with no singer!  Hamlet without the Prince?  I am reliably informed that it was never intended that Anita Watson should sing these.  But they sounded distinctly ‘so-what’-ish in their orchestral guise.  Ah well.

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Then yesterday (Thursday) – (more…)

The Brodsky Quartet and friends — ‘Close To You II’

November 28, 2007

brodskyweb.jpg‘Sex And The String Quartet’ is not a widely discussed topic.  However, one of the delights of experiencing chamber music live – as opposed to on record or on the radio – is the interaction between the players:  the vibes, the sparks, the knowing grins, the micro-dramas, the body language.

For example, the Wihan Quartet (see my previous post) consists of four men:  their work ethic seems to be ‘Come on, chaps – let’s roll up our sleeves and go for it’ (with immense musicality and sensitivity, of course).  Conversely, when I heard the Chilingirian Quartet play Dvořák all those years ago, the viola player was the lovely, pale (and pregnant) Louise Williams, and it was touching to observe the tremendously gallant way in which the other three (male) members of the quartet nurtured and cared for her (musically, I mean).

In the Brodsky Quartet, the female member is the cellist, Jacqueline Thomas.  Uniquely, the quartet plays standing up, except for the cellist (yes, I know – ‘you can’t get that under your chin’), so she sits, literally, on a pedestal, with the others standing around her.  The image that came to my mind was of an ice princess surrounded by adoring acolytes (not wishing to be sexist or ‘look-ist’, but Ms Thomas is a strikingly tall and elegant ash blonde – though with a nice twinkle).

To composer Martin Butler, however, the image that came to mind was slightly different:

‘I imagined the four standing players to be acting as sentries, standing guard, keeping watch over the seated cellist and patrolling their space – hence the title. Then a friend pointed me in the direction of the opening scene of Hamlet – with its sentries, its sinister and slightly surreal atmosphere, its ghost, its uncertainty and apprehensiveness – and the flavour of the piece was fixed.’

The resulting work, Sentinels (for the Brodsky Quartet plus an extra viola – tonight John Metcalfe) was arresting and powerful, more challenging than other works by Prof. Butler that I have heard.  Strong, clear, colourful, totally ‘thought through’ – very rewarding.  (if you’re reading this, Martin, I’m sorry not to have met you;  I’ve been listening to the Tin Pan Ballet CD continuously in the car for a month!  Brilliant.)

When you add extra players to a quartet, the number of possible interactions – musical and interpersonal – must multiply geometrically (xkcd must have something to say about this).  With the six players required for Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, you are more or less listening to a string orchestra.  I have never managed to warm to this late-Romantic-early-Schoenberg ultra-emotional piece, although I can see and hear its virtues (maybe, for me, it’s just because it isn’t by Richard Strauss).  The Brodskys and friends gave a glorious performance – rich, passionate, sonorous, nuanced – but it didn’t do it for me (nor for my companion).

Then, in the second half, Schubert’s String Quintet – that favourite of Desert Island Discs (and me, of course).  (more…)