Archive for the Music Category

The Goethe-Institut Choir Christmas Concert

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on December 18, 2018 by telescoper


Last night I found myself yet again at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, this time for a Christmas Concert by the Goethe-Institut Choir and the Goethe Ensemble, directed by John Dexter, together with a fine set of principals Katy Kelly (soprano), Christina Whyte (alto), Dustin Drosdziok (tenor) and Eoghan Desmond (bass).

The main items on the menu were three Parts of the Christmas Oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach. Before the interval wine break we heard Parts I and IV, the former opening with the famous Jauchzet, frohlocket!, followed in the second half by Part III. The whole Oratorio is in six parts, which I think would make it too long for an evening concert, which explains why only three pieces were performed. I’m not sure why the particular ordering was chosen for the selected parts but it worked rather well. The various Parts are basically separate cantatas anyway, so performing them individually like this is perfectly sensible.

Before Part III of the Oratorio, which came in Part II of the Concert, after Part IV, which came in Part I,  the Choir performed some shorter pieces without the orchestra: a mediaeval carol called Angelus ad Virginem, a piece from the magnificent All-Night Vigil by Sergei Rachmaninov, БОГОРОДИЦЕ ДЈЕВО, and a much jauntier version of the same text (closely related to Ave Maria) by Arvo Pärt.  Then there was an audience singalong to Stille Nacht, with verses in English, Irish and German.

In case you’re interested, the opening verse of Silent Night in Irish reads

Oíche chiúin, oíche Mhic Dé,
Cách ‘na suan, dís araon,
Dís is dílse ag faire le spéis,
Naí beag gnaoi-gheal ceanán tais caomh
Críost ina chodladh go séimh,
Críost ina chodladh go séimh.

The choir was really excellent in these pieces, as it was throughout the concert.

The second piece in the concert  (Part IV) was marred by poor pitching of the two French horns, but there was compensation in the form of lovely playing by the interweaving violins behind the tenor aria, and an echo effect achieved by placing an oboe and vocalist (soprano Eilis Dexter) in the choir balcony (the main choir being on stage with the Orchestra).

The concert got off to an inauspicious (but rather amusing) start when the power supply failed for the chamber organ played by Niall Kinsella just as the concert was about to begin. I didn’t realise those instruments needed to be plugged in. Obviously batteries are not included. A stage hand had to dash on and fiddle about to find another socket behind the drapes surrounding the stage and then bring on an extension cable. Fortunately the delay wasn’t long.

Overall this was a very enjoyable concert, with Choir and Orchestra on good form. The principal vocalists were good too. I particularly liked Katy Kelly. It didn’t surprise me when I read in the programme that she has recently performed two great roles in Mozart operas: Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), La Contessa (Le Nozze di Figaro) and performed the Die Königin der Nacht coloratura arias from the Magic Flute on television. I think she has a great voice for Mozart, agile and graceful.

I should also mention that the Concert was pretty much sold out, which was good to see. No doubt the absence of a harpsichord contributed to its success.

Anyway, that concludes my concert-going for 2018. Hopefully there will be a few more to report on in 2019!

 

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Messiah in Dublin

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , on December 14, 2018 by telescoper

On 10th December last year I posted a review of a performance of Handel’s Messiah in Cardiff. At the end of that item I wondered where I would be listening to Messiah in 2018. Well, the answer to that question turned out to be at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, the city where Messiah received its premiere way back in 1742.

Messiah was initially performed at Easter (on 13th April 1742) and it’s by no means clear (to me) why it ended up almost universally regarded as a Christmas piece. The work actually spans the entire biblical story of the Messiah, from Old Testament prophecy to the Nativity (Part 1), the Passion of Christ (Part II), culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus, and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part III). The Nativity only features (briefly) in Part I, which is why it’s a little curious that Messiah is so strongly associated with Christmas.

The printed programme for last night (cover shown above) included the first advertisement for the first performance of Messiah:

For the relief of the prisoners in the several Gaols and for the Support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen’s Street and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inn’s Quay, on Monday 12th April will be performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Mr Handel’s new Grand Oratorio MESSIAH…

The venue was designed to hold 600 people (less than half the capacity of the National Concert Hall) but 700 people crammed in. Ladies had been asked not to wear hoops in their dresses and gentlemen were asked not to bring their swords to help squeeze in the extra hundred. The concert raised the huge sum of £400 and Messiah was an immediate hit in Ireland.

It wasn’t the same story when Messiah was first performed in England the following year. It failed again in England when performed in 1745 but after some rewriting Handel put it on again in 1749 and it proved an enormous success. It has remained popular ever since. But it is still exceptionally popular in Dublin. There are umpteen performances of Messiah at this time of year, and the one I attended last night was one of three in the same week at the same venue, all more-or-less sold out. The Dubliners I chatted to in the bar before the concert were extremely proud that their city is so strongly associated with this remarkable work.

I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me. Some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, well over 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young.

Last night’s performance was by Our Lady’s Choral Society with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Soloists were Sarah Brady (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo), Andrew Gavin (tenor) and Padraic Rowan (bass), the latter really coming into his own in the second half with a wonderfully woody sonority to his voice, especially in No. 40:

Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?

Topical, or what?

Our Lady’s Choral Society is an amateur outfit and, while it might not sound as slick and polished as some professional choirs, there was an honesty about its performance last night that I found very engaging. It actually sounded like people singing, which professional choirs sometimes do not. The orchestra played very well too, and weren’t forced to use the dreaded `period instruments’. There was a harpsichord, but fortunately it was barely audible. Anyway, I enjoyed the concert very much and so did the packed house. I couldn’t stay for all the applause as I had dash off to get the last train back to Maynooth, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the music.

Incidentally, among the bass section of Our Lady’s Choral Society last night was my colleague Brian Dolan. On Monday next I’m going to another Concert at the National Concert Hall, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Among the choir for that performance is another of my colleagues, Jonivar Skullerud. Obviously, choral singing is the in-thing for theoretical physicists in this part of the world!

There are many ways to go mad…

Posted in History, Music with tags , , , on December 8, 2018 by telescoper

The clip below is of a live performance by Irish folk artist Lisa O’Neill (who is from Cavan) of her own song, `Violet Gibson’. I heard the studio version from her CD on the radio the other day and the first line really caught my attention. The Youtube version is preceded by a lengthy spoken by Lisa O’Neill which is worth listening to but if you want to jump to the point where the song starts, that’s about 5:27.

The story of Violet Gibson is both bizarre and tragic. She was in 1876 into a well-to-do family living in Merrion Square in Dublin. Her father, Edward Gibson, was made Baron Ashbourne in 1886. To cut a long story short, at 11am on 26th April 1926, Violet Gibson turned up in Rome where she attempted to shoot Fascist Leader Benito Mussolini with a pistol. She only failed in this task because Mussolini moved his head at the instant she pulled the trigger, and the bullet just grazed his nose. She tried to fire again, but her gun jammed. She was then seized by the angry mob of fascist supporters with whom she had mingled to get close enough to shoot. She was almost lynched but saved by the police. Eventually, the authorities came to the conclusion that she was insane and she was sent back to England. She spent the rest of her life in a psychiatric institution in Northampton. She died in 1956, at the age of 79.

P.S. If you want to find out more about Violet Gibson, I recommend a book about her life called The Woman Who Shot Mussolini by Frances Stonor Saunders.

P.P.S. Cavan is the county town of County Cavan, which is in the Irish Border Region. Although part of the province of Ulster, it is in the Republic of Ireland.

R.I.P. Pete Shelley (1955-2018)

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Music with tags , , on December 7, 2018 by telescoper

I heard the news late last night of the passing of Pete Shelley, best known as the lead singer of the Buzzcocks. Another iconic figure from my youth has gone. I was never really interested in the 70s punk movement in the UK, but the Buzzcocks managed to combine some of the energy and directness of punk rock with more conventional pop melodies. Above all, though, there was Pete Shelley’s style of delivery, head tilted to one side, a unique mixture of queer camp and unapologetic defiance. That had a big effect on me in my teenage years. In particular, I remember watching watching this performance on Top of the Pops in 1978 (forty years ago, when I was 15) and understanding exactly what the song was about. Ever Fallen In Love only got to number 12 in the charts, but in my memory it was a far bigger hit than that.

Rest in peace, Pete Shelley (1955-2018).

P.S. The answer to the question posed in the song is, of course, `yes’..

The Final Shootout

Posted in Film, Music, Politics with tags , , , , on December 6, 2018 by telescoper

“Only connect” they say so I thought I’d connect two topical items with this video clip of one of my favourite movie scenes.

The first item is that on 15th February next year the legendary composer Ennio Morricone will be conducting a concert of his music in Dublin. Moricone’s 90th birthday was on 10th November 2018.

The other thing is that the UK Parliament is currently debating the terms of Brexit. It seems that there are now only three options: accept Theresa May’s ugly Withdrawal Agreement, reject it and suffer a bad `No Deal’ Brexit or take the sensible, good choice of withdrawing Article 50, admitting it was all a terrible idea in the first place, and remaining in the European Union.

So here we are then, the climactic final shoot-out from Sergio Leone’s famous Spaghetti Western The Good The Bad And The Ugly, featuring Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef respectively, together with superb (and very complex) music on the soundtrack from Morricone. We all know who wins in the end, at least in the film.

P.S. Hats off to the guitarist Alessandro Alessandroni (who also did the whistling on the soundtrack) producing that unforgettable twangy sound with a hint of scordatura

Una Grande Vociaccia

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , , , , , on December 2, 2018 by telescoper

Had she still been alive, December 2nd 2018 would have been the 95th birthday of the most renowned opera singer of her time, Maria Callas.

She was born in 1923 in New York city of Greek parents who had moved there the previous year, and christened Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou. Her mother, disenchanted with her deteriorating marriage, abandoned her husband (Maria’s father) and took Maria and her sister back to Athens in 1937. Maria enrolled at the National Conservatoire of Greece the same year after winning a scholarship with the quality of her voice, which

was warm, lyrical, intense; it swirled and flared like a flame and filled the air with melodious reverberations.

At this age, Maria was a rather plump young lady with a rather deep voice. Initially, she aspired to be a contralto but at the Conservatoire she was encouraged instead to become a dramatic soprano. Accordingly, she underwent special training to raise her natural pitch (or tessitura) and learned how to control her remarkable voice more accurately so she could sing in a sufficiently disciplined fashion that she could take on the dazzling coloratura passages that she would perform in later years with such success. She also worked on her chest tones to broaden the scope of her voice in the mezzo region. Although she became more technically refined as a singer during this period, there were some things that didn’t change. One was the sheer power of her voice, which is something that we tend to notice less in these days of microphones and studio recordings. People who heard her sing live confess to being shocked at the sheer scale of sound she could deliver without amplification. Perhaps more tellingly, she eschewed many of the devices sopranos tended to use to control the highest notes, usually involving some alteration of the throat to produce accuracy at the expense of a thinner and more constricted tone. When Callas went for a high note, she always did so in a full-throated manner. This often produced a piercing sound that could be intensely dramatic, even to the extent of almost knocking you out of your seat, but it was a very risky approach for a live performance. Audiences simply weren’t used to hearing a coloratura sing with such volume and in such a whole-hearted way. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was certainly remarkable and often very moving. It was this aspect of her voice that led her friend Tito Gobbi (who sang with her in Tosca) to call it una grande vociaccia, which I translate in my schoolboy Italian as meaning something like “a big ugly voice”. That isn’t meant to be as disparaging as it sounds (Gobbi was a great admirer of Callas’ singing).

Having listened to lots of recordings of Maria Callas I have to admit that they are certainly not all good. Sometimes the voice didn’t come off at all. Unkindly, one colleague said that she “sang with her ovaries”. When she talked about her own noice, Callas herself often referred to it as if it were some independent creature over which she had very little control. Anyway, whatever the reason, when she was bad she was definitely bad. But I adopt the philosophy that one should judge artists (and scientists, for that matter) by their best work rather than their worst, and when Callas was good she was simply phenomenal, like a sublime and irresistible force of nature. That’s why they called her La Divina.

Although her talent was very raw in the beginning there was no question that she always had a voice of exceptional power and dramatic intensity. When she started singing professionally she immediately attracted lavish praise from the critics not just for her voice but also for her acting. As a young soprano she sang in an astonishing variety of operas, including Wagner‘s Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre, neither of which one would now associate with Callas.

It was in the late 194os that Callas began to take an interest in the type of opera that would really make her name. Bel canto opera was rather unfashionable at that time, probably because audiences preferred the grittier and more realistic verismo style. Virtually single-handed, Callas resurrected the bel canto canon by injecting a true sense of drama into works which had previously just been seen as vehicles for the singers to demonstrate their art. Callas brought an entirely new dimension to the great operas by Bellini (Norma, I Puritani, La Somnambula…) and Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor, Anna Bolena), although she was sufficiently versatile to also perform brilliantly in the verismo syle of Verdi and Puccini as well as lesser known composers such as Giordano (Andrea Chenier). Recordings of many of these performances are available, but it is sad that this glorious period of her singing career happened just a bit before high quality equipment was available so the true glory of her voice isn’t always evident.

In 1953, Callas decided that she wanted to change her appearance, perhaps so she would look more appropriate for the parts she was playing on stage. At the time she weighed almost 200lbs. In order to lose weight as quickly as possible, she followed the barbarous but highly effective expedient of swallowing a tapeworm. She lost 80lbs in a matter of months. The dramatic loss of weight changed her body and her face, emphasizing her high angular cheekbones and giving her a striking look very well suited to the opera stage. But it also affected her voice somewhat, especially at the upper end where she seems to have found it more difficult to avoid the dreaded “wobble” which was one of the alleged imperfections that critics tended to dwell upon.

Callas also had very poor eyesight which required her to wear very thick spectacles in order to see at all, a thing she refused to do onstage with the result that she was virtually blind during performances. In fact, during a performance of Tosca at Covent Garden she leant too far over a candle and her hair caught fire. Improvising magnificently, Tito Gobbi, as the loathsome Scarpia, extinguished the fire by throwing water at her before the audience had noticed. Although they weren’t much use for seeing with, her eyes were a great asset for her acting, in turns flashing like a demon then shining like an angel.

After her weight loss, Callas was suddenly no longer just a wonderful singer but also a strikingly beautiful woman. Her career took a back seat as she started to revel in the glamorous lifestyle that opened up in front of her. Her voice deteriorated and she performed rather less frequently. Eventually she embarked on a love affair with Aristotle Onassis, a notorious serial collector of trophy women. She hoped to marry him but he abandoned her to marry Jackie Kennedy, widow of John F. Kennedy.

She never really recovered from the failure of this affair, retired from singing and lived out the last years of her life as a virtual recluse in her apartment in Paris. She died in 1977.

I had heard a lot about Maria Callas when I was younger, but the recordings that I listened to (generally from the 1960s) were really not very good as her voice was undoubtedly much diminished by then. I just assumed that, as is the case with many artists, the legend of Callas was all mere hype. Then, about fifteen years ago, I was listening to BBC Radio 3 and they played the final scenes of the great 1954 recording of Norma with Callas in the title role, conducted by Tullio Serafin. I was completely overwhelmed by it and tears flowed freely from my eyes. I’ve always had a tendency to blub when I hear really beautiful music, but as I’ve got older I’ve learned not to be embarrassed by it. At least I don’t cry at football matches.

In England, Callas is probably best remembered for her performances in Tosca in Covent Garden. I have recordings of her in that role and they are really wonderful. But there are many fine recordings of Tosca by other singers, some of which are almost as good. In the case of Norma, though, there isn’t any other performance that comes within a mile of the Callas version. Or if there is, I’ve yet to hear it.

Now I know that there are some people, even opera lovers, who just don’t get Callas at all (just look at the comment boards on Youtube). I grant that she wasn’t always the most accurate singer, and I don’t think you could say her voice had a purely classical beauty. But even if you don’t like her voice you have to admit that she revitalized the opera stage and brought a new public into the theatres. I can’t imagine what the state of opera would be now, if there hadn’t been a Callas and you can’t argue that she is now an iconic figure. What I admire most about her is that, like it or loath it, her voice is instantly recognisable. In this sense, she always puts me in mind of a kind of operatic version of Billie Holliday. She’s a far cry from the many bland mediocrities that pass themselves off as opera singers nowadays.

I’m going to end with the obligatory clips from Youtube. There’s a lot of Callas on there, not all of it good. I’ve chosen a couple of items, although neither of them has a proper video. The first was performed live in 1955 in front of the notoriously difficult audience at La Scala in Milan and recorded from a radio broadcast so that the sound quality is quite poor. A studio recording of this aria, from Andrea Chenier, features most movingly in the film Philadelphia. This live version, however, is notable for a number of reasons. One is that you get some idea of the power of the Callas voice in the way she pushes aside the entire orchestra and is even able to cut through the distortions introduced by the rather primitive recording technology. The second thing is that she sings it so beautifully, with such feeling, lovely phrasing, and so much colour and vitality. Listen to the way the texture of her voice matches perfectly her changing emotions as she tells her story. The shattering, climactic high C that occurs near the end is a perfect example of what I was saying above. She stabs this note out like her life depended on it. It sends shivers down my spine and clearly had the same effect on the audience. The thunderous applause that follows the end of this aria is quite frightening in its intensity, but gives a good idea how much her public adored her. If you can put up with the lo-fi recording, this is certainly a better performance than the studio version.

The final piece has to be from Norma. I think Bellini is a wonderful composer of opera, but he doesn’t make life easy for the singers. There’s never any doubling of the vocal line by the orchestra so the singer is very exposed. This doesn’t bother Maria Callas. This is the famous aria Casta Diva, which has become a kind of signature tune for her and it’s one of the pieces that she always seemed to perform beautifully. It might be a bit hackneyed but I love it and, after all, it’s my blog. There’s also a nice compilation of pictures.

I’d be interested to hear what the general opinion of Callas is based on a sample of the two or three people who read my blog, so please feel free to add your comments!

Britten – Hymn to St Cecilia

Posted in Music with tags , , , on November 22, 2018 by telescoper

Apparently today is Thanksgiving (whatever that is) but, more importantly, it is also the Feast of Saint Cecilia. That reminded of this wonderful piece of music, which I thought I’d post to mark the occasion. It is the Hymn to St Cecilia, with words by W.H. Auden set to music by Benjamin Britten and performed on this recording by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge conducted by Sir David Willcocks.

Incidentally, 22nd November is also Britten’s birthday; he would have been 105 today.

After I posted about Britten’s War Requiem a couple of weeks ago, some comments appeared at Another Place (i.e. Facebook) about Britten and whether he really was a great composer whose legacy would endure. My view, which I’ve stated on this blog a number of times, is that one should judge artists (and scientists, for that matter) by their best work rather than their worst. In my opinion, Mozart wrote a lot of music that wasn’t very good but if all he’d ever done in his life was write, e.g., Don Giovanni he’d still be regarded as a timeless genus.
Even if you don’t like all of Britten’s music, there are enough masterpieces among his output to guarantee a lasting reputation. I would put Peter Grimes and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings firmly in the category of masterpieces alongside the Hymn to St Cecilia.

Anyway, if you’d like to nominate any works by Britten as examples of his best or worst then please feel free to do so via the Comments Box below.