St David’s Day Concert

I’ve finally found a few minutes before dinner to post a quick review of last night’s St David’s Day concert at St David’s Hall here in Cardiff.

I was very lucky with the tickets for this because when I first went on the on-line booking system there didn’t seem to be any blocks of good seats available, and I was hoping to go with a contingent of work colleagues and their partners. However, I was then distracted by work things and decided to try again later. When I logged on again, a set of front-row seats had mysteriously appeared. I snapped them all up for £20 quid each and had no problem finding buyers for them all. And so it was that we took our seats last night just a few feet from the edge of the stage for the performance, which was broadcast Live on BBC Radio 3.

The main item on the bill was the perennial Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, which accounted for the huge number of singers ranged up behind the stage. These included not only the BBC National Chorus of Wales (on the right of the stage) but also massed County Youth Choirs from all across the Principality (in the centre) and a choir of very young children from Ysgol Gymreig Pwll Coch to the left. The latter, I should say, in case I forget later, were absolutely terrific.

However, before the interval the divers choirs had a chance simply to listen to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales play Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43 by Sergei Rachmaninov, featuring Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams. It was a pleasant enough warm-up, with flashes of virtuosic brilliance as well as lots of changes of mood, although I did think it took soloist and Orchestra quite a while to gel together. Incidentally, the “theme by Paganini” used as the basis of this piece is the same one that was used for the musical introduction to the South Bank Show, although I think quite a lot of people know that.

Anyway, it’s quite a short piece so the interval came up quickly. In the bar we found free Welsh cakes and bara brith, which was delicious, and 20 minutes later we were back in the hall for the main event.

The Carmina Burana is of course an extremely popular concert piece, but the fact that it’s so well known hasn’t resulted in it becoming a commonplace experience. It’s one of those works that can sound fresh and exciting no matter how many times you’ve heard it before. In fact, last night’s performance was gripping right from the start.

It’s probably a dangerous trick for a composer to use their best idea right at the start, but it works in this case. The opening O Fortuna made it clear to every one in the hall that we were in for a treat, as the sense of controlled power from the massed voices was quite spine-tingling. There’s only a  problem with starting  brilliantly if you can’t sustain it, but that’s not the case with the Carmina Burana. The text is taken from a curious collection of 13th century poems – mainly in ecclesiastical latin, but with smatterings of German and Provencal. Curious because, although they were written by monks, they are decidedly secular in subject matter including bawdy drinking songs and lewd lyrics about sexual lust. The music is quite varied too, using bits of plain chant alongside more modern-sounding sections. In other words, there are enough contrasts in both subject matter and musical style you keep you hooked all the way through; at least that what I felt.

As well as the massed choirs there are three solo vocalists, although the work isn’t shared equally. Baritone Christopher Maltman had by far the most to do and he certainly earned his crust. Soprano Sarah Tynan sang her pieces very nicely, especially when she was teamed up with the splendid children’s choir. Tenor Allan Clayton only had one piece to do – a song about a swan being roasted on a spit – but he didn’t fluff it when his chance finally came.

Conductor Andrew Litton (left) cut an engaging figure on the podium. Bouncing up and down with an energy that belied his rotund appearance I thought he looked like a cross between John Sessions and Jocky Wilson.  He also kept the enormous orchestral and choral forces together quite superbly and managed to conjure up an excellent performance from all concerned. When we made it to a local restaurant after the performance we found him sitting just one table away. He’d certainly earned his dinner!

Carmina Burana ends with a recapitulation of the initial number O Fortuna – best known perhaps for being used in the film The Omen – after which much applause reverberated around the hall. Rightly so, as it was a really wonderful concert.

It didn’t end quite there, however. Since it was St David’s Day there was a final rendition of the Welsh National Anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau which the audience joined in. With the massed choirs belting it out as if their lives depended on it I’m not sure how much we were heard on the Radio, but I can tell you that it sounded great inside the hall.


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18 Responses to “St David’s Day Concert”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    “there didn’t seem to be nay blocks of good seats available”

    Is that a double negative?

    “Curious because, although they were written by monks, they are decidedly secular in subject matter including bawdy drinking songs and lewd lyrics about sexual lust.”

    The accepted view is that they were written by trainee ecclesiastics. Students are universally irreverent, which is no bad thing in this case as they highlight the gulf between the gospel and the mediaeval Catholic church. I have recently been informing myself about the latter and have been shocked (a) at how many stories held to be true about its immorality are false, and (b) how many stories held to be true about its immorality are true. Case (a) arises from Rome’s opponents, ie protestants and secularists, not doing their homework properly by going back to original sources.

    Pope Paul III began Rome’s response to the Reformation in the decades after Luther started it in 1517. Paul III commissioned a report by 9 prominent European churchmen of what was wrong and needed reforming within the Catholic church, and he convened the Council of Trent intended to enact improvement (the “counter-Reformation”).

    Among the authors of that report, “Consilium… de emendanda ecclesia,” completed in 1537, were the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Pole (Regge poles anyone?), and Cardinal Carafa who became Pope Paul IV. The Consilium was, however, leaked to Luther who promptly published it – the Reformation was unlikely to have succeeded before Gutenberg’s invention – and so shocking were the abuses it set out that Carafa/Paul IV put his own work on the list of books that Catholics were forbidden to read (a list which Carafa had himself instituted!)

    The Consilium acknowledged, for example, that many nunneries, which in practice were dumping grounds for unmarriageable women of the middle and upper classes (some were widows), had degenerated into little more than whorehouses: “with regard to nuns under the care of conventual friars… public sacrilege occurs with the greatest scandal to all…” Writing within living memory of English monasticism, Shakespeare used a common wordplay by which ‘nunnery’ could mean ‘brothel.’ That this situation had prevailed for centuries is shown in HC Lea’s remarkable book An History of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church, written from original sources in the 19th century. The Bible is clear that church leaders should be family men not celibates (1 Timothy 3), and Lea documents centuries of disgrace and tragedy.

    Anton

    PS I trust you sent over a good bottle to the conductor’s table.

    • “The Consilium acknowledged, for example, that many nunneries, which in practice were dumping grounds for unmarriageable women of the middle and upper classes (some were widows)”

      Wasn’t another source of women in nunneries and “orphanages” illegitimate daughters of priests and other people who were supposed to be celibate as well as daughters of mistresses as opposed to wives?

      Of course, there were some real (legitimate?) orphans as well.

      Getting back to music, Vivaldi worked in a girl’s orphanage where many of the girls performed his works.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Phillip: I’m not sure; because Rome’s opponents tend to repeat scandalous tales without checking them it is vital to get back to original sources, and thankfully Lea’s book written from original sources is online. Some priests had long-term mistresses who were wives in all but name, and in view of 1 Timothy 3 I sympathise with them. (Incidentally, the 19th century miller George Green of Green’s functions had a similar arrangement; he would have lost his Fellowship at Cambridge had he married the mother of his many children.) Until the counter-Reformation the Catholic church even collected a tax on priestly concubines, called the Cullagium; presumably if you failed to pay then the celibacy rules were enforced against you. The Renaissance popes tended to seduce other people’s wives, which solved the problem for them – although Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI, 1492-1503) then wished to promote his notorious offspring Cesare and Lucrezia. A TV drama series about the Borgias is starting soon with Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo, which I think is a mistake – he looks far too ascetic. Adolfo Celi, who played him in the 1981 series (and was also the baddie in Thunderball), was much fleshier. The computer game Assassins Creed II is a romp throiugh Renaissance Italy featuring the Borgias.
      Anton

  2. telescoper Says:

    I trust you sent over a good bottle to the conductor’s table.

    Yes. But it missed.

  3. telescoper Says:

    I was actually pretty good at Latin at School and, although I’ve forgotten a lot, I found it quite easy to follow the text without looking at the translation. I could make neither head nor tail of the mediaeval German bits though. I also think it pretty obvious that some of the latin verses written by learners, as they contain a number of schoolboy errors in grammar, which would be consistent with them being trainees.

  4. telescoper Says:

    Incidentally, does anyone reading this know of any other pieces by Carl Orff worth listening to?

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’m not really familiar with any of Carl Orff’s other works. He was the featured Composer of the Week on Radio 3 in 2009, but I do not recall any of his other compositions played then having the immediate, strong appeal of Carmina Burana. There is one piece for children’s choir that is moderately well known, but I do not recall the name.

    I suspect that Orff has suffered from having been active in Nazi Germany and there has been much debate over the extent to which he compromised with the regime or even collaborated with it. Carmina Burana is often claimed to have been one of Hitler’s favourite pieces of music (I can recall a discussion on the radio when somebody praised Carmina and Charles Mackerras replied that he could instantly turn the person against the piece by revealing Hitler’s enthusiasm for it!). This may have contributed to the neglect of Orff’s music, with the exception of Carmina Burana because of Carmina’s immediate appeal.

    It might be worth looking for recordings of Orff’s other compositions, if we can convince ourselves that he was not implicated in the political actions of his times.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “Mackerras replied that he could instantly turn the person against the piece by revealing Hitler’s enthusiasm for it.”

      Interesting that this doesn’t work with Wagner…

    • telescoper Says:

      I did know that it was first performed in 1937, in Germany, so Orff must have been on the approved list…

    • “Interesting that this doesn’t work with Wagner…”

      Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. 🙂

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I notice that there is a programme about Carl Orff on BBC Four television at 11 p.m. tonight (Friday, 11th March).

  6. “The opening O Fortuna made it clear to every one in the hall that we were in for a treat, as the sense of controlled power from the massed voices was quite spine-tingling.”

    Probably for the same reason, Ozzy Osbourne used this piece as the warm-up music before his concerts.

  7. “Curious because, although they were written by monks, they are decidedly secular in subject matter including bawdy drinking songs and lewd lyrics about sexual lust.”

    Where’s the contradiction?

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