Archive for the Music Category

The Soundtrack of Summer

Posted in Biographical, Music, Television on July 31, 2022 by telescoper

I just heard of the death on 4th July at the age of 82 of Austrian actor Robert Hoffmann who I remember very well for his role as Robinson Crusoe in the TV series The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. That series was first broadcast in 1964 and was repeated frequently over the years, especially during the long summer holidays. I loved the theme music when I was a child and it is now redolent with nostalgia, forever associated with memories of childhood summers before life got complicated. I’m sure that is also the case for many others, so perhaps you won’t mind wandering off down memory lane with this:

Dizzy on the French Riviera

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on July 18, 2022 by telescoper

Today’s high temperatures provide me with an excuse to post my favourite hot-weather music, the 1962 album Dizzy on the French Riviera. Can this really have been recorded 60 years ago?

Anyway, the album features the great Dizzy Gillespie Quintet of that time which was heavily influenced by Latin American sounds and had Argentinian Lalo Schifrin on piano, a man best known as a prolific composer of film and TV scores. The band also featured Leo Wright, a very under-rated saxophonist and flautist, and is augmented on some of the tracks by various percussionists. I have lost track of the number of times I’ve listened to the happy seaside sounds of children playing leading into to the opening track No More Blues

Tosca at the Bord Gáis

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , on July 15, 2022 by telescoper

Last night found me for the very first time at Dublin’s splendid Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, for a performance of Tosca by Irish National Opera, a tale of jealousy and murder set to gorgeous music by Giacomo Puccini.

Bord Gáis means “Gas Board”, by the way, but a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

It’s been a while since I last went to an Opera and it was a last-minute decision to attend this one, but I heard good things about the opening night on Monday and managed to get a ticket. I’m very glad I did as there was much to enjoy, with some quite original variations on a very familiar story.

Tosca is an opera in three acts (which means two intervals wine breaks…). It’s a melodrama, and is set in Rome in 1800. Each Act takes place in a very specific location within the Eternal City. Act I is set in the Church of  Sant’Andrea della Valle, Act II in the Palazzo Farnese, and the final denouement of Act III takes place among the battlements at the top of the Castel Sant’ Angelo overlooking the Tiber.

Most productions of Tosca I have seen stick rigorously to a specific sense of time and place. In this one, directed by Michael Gieleta, the locations are suggested rather than reproduced directly and the costumes and interior design are generally 20th Century, with some sly references. The villainous Spoletta, for example, a police agent, is clearly dressed as a Jesuit. The shepherd boy in Act III appears as an angel, complete with wings, whose ghostly presence leads the prisoners on to their impending execution.

There is also some very ingenious staging, with a rotating set showing the torture scene in Act II while Scarpia and Tosca do their thing. The revolving structure also provides a very interesting alternative view of the end of Act III. I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling it for others…

Floria Tosca (Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, soprano) is a celebrated opera singer who is in love with an artist (and political radical) by the name of Mario Cavaradossi (Dimitri Pittas, tenor), who helps to hide an escaped political prisoner Cesare Angelotti (John Molloy, bass) while working on a painting in Act I. The odious Baron Scarpia (Tómas Tómasson, bass-baritone), Chief of Police, comes looking for the convict and decides to catch (in different ways) both Tosca and Cavaradossi: he lusts after the former and hates the latter.

In Act II, we find Scarpia at home eating dinner for one while Cavaradossi is being tortured in order to find out the location of the escapee. Tosca turns up to plead for his life, but she hasn’t bargained with the true depths of Scarpia’s depravity. He wants to have his way with her, and to put pressure on he lets her listen to the sound of her lover being tortured. She finally consents, in return for Scarpia’s promise to let Cavaradossi go and grant free passage to the two of them. This he seems to do, but while she is waiting for him to write the letter of conduct she sees a knife. Instead of letting Scarpia defile her, she grabs it and stabs him to death. Act III begins with Cavaradossi facing execution, sure he is about to die. Tosca is convinced that this is just a charade and that Scarpia ordered them to pretend to shoot Cavaradossi so he wouldn’t look like he was being merciful, which would be out of character. The firing squad fire and Cavaradossi falls. But it was no fake. He is dead. Tosca is distraught and bewildered. Shouts offstage reveal that the police have found Scarpia’s body and that Tosca must have murdered him. To avoid capture she hurls herself from the battlements. Her last words are “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” – “I’ll meet you before God, Scarpia”, though in this production we don’t actually see her jump…

The opera wasn’t particularly well received when it was first performed in 1900, being famously described by one critic as “a shabby little shocker”, but it has become a firm favourite with audiences around the world and is now acknowledged as a masterpiece of music drama. So how did Puccini manage to transform a penny-dreadful plot into a great work of art? I don’t think it’s hard to see why it works so well.

First and foremost, there’s the music, which  is wonderful throughout, but it is always plays an essential part in keeping everything moving. Of course there are the great arias: Vissi d’arte, Vissi d’amore sung by Tosca in Act II and E Lucevan le Stelle from Act III, sung by Cavaradossi; but even apart from those tremendous set-pieces, Puccini uses the music to draw out the psychology of the characters and underline the drama.

Although not usually associated with the use of leitmotifs, Puccini deploys them throughout: Scarpia’s arrival is announced with a suitably menacing theme that recurs whenever he is present or even just referred to.  This theme is actually the first thing we hear as the Opera starts. It also plays Scarpia out at the end of Act 1 when he sings his magnificently chilling Va Tosca over a setting of the Te Deum. Time does stand still for Tosca’s great Act II aria, the dramatic fulcrum of the Opera, but that just emphasises the pace of the rest of the piece. This is a work with no spare flesh or padding anywhere, and a perfect interplay between music and action. The moment when Tosca sees the knife with which she will kill Scarpia is signalled by the orchestra. And after Scarpia dies with Tosca preparing to make her getaway we hear, slower and deep down among the strings, Scarpia’s motif yet again. Even in death we feel he is still present…

Each of the three principal roles could have been very one-dimensional: Cavaradossi the good guy.; Scarpia the bad guy; Tosca the love interest. But all the characters have real credibility and depth. Cavaradossi is brave and generous, but he succumbs to despair before his death. No superhero this, just a man. Scarpia is a nasty piece of work all right, but at times he seems vulnerable; he is trapped by the same system he exploits. And then there’s the glamorous and loving, but not entirely likeable, Tosca who haughty and jealous, and at times spiteful. It is a truly shocking moment when she kills Scarpia. There’s no attempt to sanitise the violence of his death. It’s all so real. I guess that’s why this type of opera is called Verismo!

As for this production, I thought the principals were excellent: Dimitri Pittas seemed to be straining a bit in Act I but recovered and sang beautifully in Act III. Scarpia was suitably villainous and got a few pantomime boos at the end. A special mention must be made of the young shepherd (Joe Dwyer, treble) who was outstanding in a very difficult part for a young singer. Music director was Nil Venditti who bounced across the stage at the end to take the applause from a very appreciative audience.

There are still two performances of this production, on Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th.

The Johnson Song

Posted in Music, Politics with tags , , on July 7, 2022 by telescoper

The Moody Blues with a message for Boris Johnson.

John McLaughlin

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on June 12, 2022 by telescoper

It’s Sunday and I’ve just finished work for the day. Too tired to write anything substantial I thought I’d share a track featuring and named after the guitarist I went to see at the National Concert Hall a few weeks ago. John McLaughlin is the 4th track on the Miles Davis (double) album Bitches Brew. It doesn’t feature Miles Davis on trumpet nor Wayne Shorter on saxophone but does involve the electric pianos of Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, the bass of Dave Holland, the drums of Lenny White and Jack de Johnette, other percussion by Don Alias and Juma Santos and Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet; the latter addition to the ensemble being a stroke of genius by Miles Davis. I know quite a lot of fans of Miles Davis don’t like this album at all, finding it all a bit perplexing but I don’t mind music that’s a bit perplexing and I think it’s great. Most of the tracks are very long but this one is only four and a half minutes or so in duration, built around a simple riff laid over a loose and very dynamic rhythmic accompaniment. Like the other numbers, it’s almost entirely improvised.

Jubilee Stomp – Duke Ellington

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on June 5, 2022 by telescoper

As my only contribution to the ongoing Platinum Jubilee celebrations, here’s a classic record that’s almost as old as Queen Elizabeth II and is by a prominent member of the Jazz nobility, the Duke of Ellington.

As far as I know this is the first recording of Jubilee Stomp, made in early 1928, though the band made several other versions. At the time this one was made, Duke Ellington’s Orchestra had just started as the house band at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem which soon established the venue as the hottest nightspot in New York. That almost didn’t happen: the residency was initially offered to King Oliver, but he wanted too much money and so it passed to the second choice, Duke Ellington. The rest, as they say, his history.

Anyway, this is a digitally remastered version of the original Okeh recording, which brings out the best of the Ellington Band of that time, especially the great Wellman Braud who introduced the style of walking bass that quickly established itself as a mainstay of every rhythm section.

This version of Ellington’s Orchestra was actually only a ten-piece band, but it was packed with great soloists and you’ll hear superb growl trumpet from James “Bubber” Miley, clarinet from Barney Bigard, and trombone from Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, among others. There’s also a nice example of the piano style of the young Duke Ellington himself. Enjoy!

Mahler & Schubert at the National Concert Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday evening, after a very pleasant wine reception at the end of ITP2022, I walked to the National Concert Hall in Dublin for my second concert in two days. Before the lockdown I used to go regularly to the Friday evening performances by the National Symphony Orchestra but until last night I hadn’t attended one since February 2022. Since I was in Dublin anyway and Mahler was on the menu I couldn’t resist this one and have now at last added to my stock of souvenir programmes. Last night’s concert was actually the last of the season but hopefully I’ll be able to go more frequently from September when the next season starts.

Last night’s performance began with Mahler’s Blumine which began life as the second movement (marked Andante) of his First Symphony but which was subsequently deleted. We heard the four-movement version of the work (i.e. without this part) in the second half of the concert. Blumine is a nice enough piece, relaxed and lyrical, but it is difficult to see how it was supposed to fit in with the rest of the symphony which is now always performed without it. Still, it served as a very good warm-up for the orchestra which, under the direction of Jaime Martín, established a polished tone and warm colour for this piece and for the rest of the evening.

After Blumine a large fraction of the orchestra left the stage to leave a pared-down version for some Lieder by Franz Schubert performed by legendary Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter who was resplendent for the occasion in an emerald green dress.

You wait two years to go a concert and then along come two in the space of two days! Only one of the songs, the first, Romanze from the incidental music for the play Rosamunde, was actually orchestrated by Schubert; the other were written with piano accompaniment and then orchestrated by others. I have to say I didn’t find the addition of a full orchestra added much to these songs, many of which have a rather spare piano accompaniment that works superbly well. A good example is An Sylvia which has its origins in Shakespeare’s play The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I love the sprightly version of this with piano accompaniment but the orchestrated version was much slower, as if weighed down by the arrangement. Still, these pieces were beautifully sung and that made them very enjoyable. After rapturous applause, Anne Sofie von Otter returned to give an encore of the old song The Last Rose of Summer which, as you can imagine because it is set to a traditional Irish tune, went down very well with the Irish audience.

After the interval the full orchestra returned to deliver a powerfully impressive performance of Mahler’s First Symphony. The programme notes remind us that for much of his life Gustav Mahler was celebrated as a conductor rather than a composer, and the First Symphony was not well received largely because it was deemed in some quarters at the time to have a structure that was insufficiently symphonic. There’s no reason why we should pay much attention the opinions of over a hundred years ago. The symphonic form has been pulled around in many directions since this work, not least by Mahler himself, and I think Mahler 1 is a very fine work. I always particularly enjoy the 3rd movement, with its occasionally raucous evocation of a Klezmer band.

The final movement brought the piece – and the whole concert – to a thrilling climax. Near the end, the entire brass section of the orchestra (7 horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, and a tuba) stood up at which point I thought “this is going to be loud”. It was. Gloriously loud.

I’ve said before on this blog how much I enjoy watching a full orchestra in action. From my position at the right of the auditorium I had a great view of the double basses who were working very hard but clearly enjoying themselves.

Anyway, last night’s concert was broadcast live on the radio and also streamed and you don’t have to take my word for anything because you can watch the whole thing yourself here:

John McLaughlin & The Fourth Dimension

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on May 27, 2022 by telescoper
John McLaughlin last night (Picture Credit National Concert Hall)

Last night I went to the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a superb gig by guitarist John McLaughlin with his band The Fourth Dimension. This was the first time I’d seen him live though I have known some of his music on disc, especially two albums he made with Miles Davis in the late Sixties, Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way. Since then John McLaughlin has been consistently regarded as one of the best jazz guitarists ever. He is now eighty years old but apart from the fact that his hair is white you would never guess that. He looks as fit as a fiddle, and last the band played for over 90 minutes without a break.

John McLaughlin (who was born in Doncaster but who referred to Ireland as “the land of my ancestors”) is currently on a European tour and he began his concert last night with a heartfelt expression of his gratitude for being able to perform in person with his band after a gap of over two years. This period has been particularly difficult for Jazz musicians who depend so much on mutual interaction when performing. The first number they played was called Lockdown Blues

The band The 4th Dimension brings together excellent musicians from different cultures and musical traditions, integrating their all cultural influences in a unique way while at the same time preserving the spontaneity of jazz. The result is hard to classify – there’s definitely more than an echo of McLaughlin’s earlier musical work in jazz/rock fusion, but with diverse elements of world music thrown in. His own musical style is instantly recognizable to anyone who has heard music from his back catalogue, but subtly altered to suit his current band.

Gary Husband (right in the picture), who is from the UK, played keyboards (and drums on a couple of numbers). Ranjit Barot – Indian by birth and living in Mumbai – was the main drummer (sometimes playing together with Husband, hence the two kits in the picture); he also made various vocal contributions. On electric bass (left) was the extraordinarily virtuosic Étienne M’Bappé who is of Senegalese origins. The band played collectively but also in various combinations with and without McLaughlin, who tended to move around the stage generally encouraging and directing the traffic.

It was a fantastic gig with a wide range of musical influences being evidence. I noticed two pieces made famous by Pharaoh Sanders – The Creator has a Master Plan and The Light at the Edge of the World – but there were also numerous references to McLaughlin’s work with Indian musicians.

It was a very enjoyable performance that generated a huge response from the audience. The NCH wasn’t quite full, but it was a good crowd. I think I was in danger of forgetting how much I enjoy watching musicians as well as listening to their music.

So after a break since February 2020 I’ve finally resumed concert-going. It’s not only the musicians who have missed live music! As a matter of fact I’ll be back at the National Concert Hall this very evening after the final day of ITP2022, for a very different concert…

Solomon Linda’s Original Evening Birds – Mbube

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on May 19, 2022 by telescoper

And now for something completely different…

The other evening it was warm enough for me to sit out in the garden, listening to the birdsong until it got dark. I couldn’t identify some of the sounds so when I came inside I started googling about for various combinations of “birds singing in the evening”. To cut a long story short I found this, and it’s been in my head ever since so I thought I’d share it here.

The song Mbube by South African singer and composer Solomon Linda was first performed in 1939 and was an immediate hit in his native land. Since then it has had more cover versions than I’ve had hot dinners, mostly with an English title The Lion Sleeps Tonight or Wimoweh, a not-entirely-accurate phonetic attempt to render the isiZulu phrase uyimbube (“you are a lion”) which occurs in the song. Solomon Linda sold the rights to the Gallo record company for just ten shillings in 1949 so never received significant income from the worldwide sales. The song was also used in the Disney film The Lion King without any royalties being paid, leading to a lawsuit brought by Linda’s surviving relatives (which was settled out of court).

There are two other fascinating things about this tune.

The first is that the “lion” referred to in the song is none other than the famous Zulu king Shaka Zulu (the subject of this famous poem) who acquired legendary status after his death. Rather like King Arthur, there was a folk belief that Shaka is not dead but only sleeping and one day he will return to liberate his people from their colonial oppressors.

The second is that the (mostly wordless) falsetto vocals were improvised by Solomon Linda (over wonderfully sonorous and rhythmically compelling bass riffs) but it was not until near the end (about 2:22) of this, the third, take that he was inspired to produce the melody that is now universally associated with the words “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight”.

Anyway, here it is.

Notes on Eurovision

Posted in Biographical, Music, Politics with tags , , , , on May 15, 2022 by telescoper

To nobody’s surprise Ukraine won last night’s Eurovision song contest after collecting a huge dollop of the televotes. After the jury votes, the United Kingdom’s entry was in the lead which surprised me because I thought it wasn’t much of a song at all. I’ve never been very good at picking the tunes that do well though. I didn’t like Ukraine’s entry – Stefania by the Kalush Orchestra – much either, but obviously there are special circumstances this year and I’m not at all sorry that they won.

In fact I thought the best song – and the best singer – by a long way was the Lithuanian entry sung by Monika Liu, who held the stage brilliantly by standing there and singing, without any fancy staging. She finished a disappointing 14th.

Monika Liu

Other entries I enjoyed were: Spain, catchy dance number with excellent choreography that finished 3rd; Moldova, an energetic performance full of humour (7th); and Norway, whose entry Give that Wolf a Banana was enjoyably deranged (10th). The less said about the other entries the better. I’m still as baffled by how Sam Ryder’s entry for the UK, Space Man, did so well in the jury votes as I am that Lithuania did so badly there, but there you go. What do I know?

I’ll state without comment that the Ukrainian jury gave a maximum douze points to the United Kingdom, but in return the UK jury gave Ukraine nil points

Anyway, three things struck me as I sipped my wine and watched the show:

  1. Ironically the Opera on the radio last night was Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg which is about a sixteenth century song contest that resembles the Eurovision versiononly in the length of time it goes on for. Perhaps someone should write a modern music drama called Die Meistersinger von Eurovision?
  2. I think the Research Excellence Framework would be much more fun if it were done like the Eurovision Song Contest. Each University regardless of size could be given the same distribution of scores to allocate to the others (but not itself). I can see interesting patterns emerging during that!
  3. When I was formally presented with my DPhil in the summer of 1989, the graduation ceremony took place on the same stage (at the Brighton Centre) on which Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 with their song Waterloo.