Archive for the Music Category

Free Jazz – A Collective Improvisation

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

In late 1960 the great saxophonist Ornette Coleman did a recording session with a stellar band of eight musicians: Coleman himself (alto sax); Eric Dolphy (bass clarinet); Freddie Hubbard and Don Cherry (trumpets); Charlie Haden and Scott Lafaro (both on bass); Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell (both on Drums). The octet thus formed is actually two quartets and these are presented one on each stereo channel.

What Ornette Coleman did with these musicians on that day was extraordinary, a piece of collective improvisation that lasted almost 40 minutes duration and which had never been attempted before on record. It’s not entirely improvised – there is a brief introduction and some pre-arranged polyphonic passages (some just an individual chord) between the soloists – but other than that the soloists were told to take turns playing whatever they liked while the rest of the band should accompany as they saw fit. The intervals between solos are largely dissonant which produces an interesting challenge for the soloists in deciding exactly how to start.

One aspect of this otherwise superb album that doesn’t work consistently for me is the inclusion of two drummers; tt least at the start they seem to get in each other’s way more than anything else but as the piece develops they seem to understand that a more subdued approach is needed and that makes it easier for the soloists as well as making the atmosphere looser and more relaxed. Listening to this track just now it struck me how much it is dominated by Ornette Coleman who directs the traffic as well as playing a terrific solo of his own in the middle.

This track was Free Jazz was originally released in two parts on a vinyl LP but it’s now available on CD in one track, along with the originally discarded first take. Not surprisingly given the nature of the piece, critics were divided, with some recognizing it as an important new development, and others hating it. This record is not exactly easy listening and when I first heard this about 40 years ago I didn’t get it at all, but now I think that for all its unevenness it’s a superb record. If you’ve got 40 minutes to spare you can now listen to it and make your own mind up!

Hallowe’en in the Dark once more

Posted in Biographical, Film, Music with tags , , on October 31, 2022 by telescoper

So we have arrived at October 31st, Hallowe’en or, in pagan terms, Samhain. This, a cross-quarter day – roughly halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice – represents the start of winter (“the dark half of the year“) in the Celtic calendar. As it turns out I didn’t get any trick-or-treaters this evening. I think the torrential rain put the dampeners on any such adventures, and I could scarcely hear the fireworks for the sound of the rain stotting down on my roof.

Despite my own reservations about Hallowe’en, I’ve decided to resurrect the following little video which seems to be appropriate for the occasion. It’s made of bits of old horror B-movies but the music – by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-kickers is actually the second 7″ single I ever bought, way back in 1973…

Angela Gheorghiu at the National Concert Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , on October 15, 2022 by telescoper

I almost missed out on last night’s performance at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. I saw the details in the brochure when it arrived at the start of the season and marked the date in my diary but dithered about buying a ticket and when I did get round to trying a few weeks ago the concert was sold out. I kept checking on the website though and was fortunate enough to find that there were some returns, so I managed to get there after all.

Angela Gheorghiu is of course a celebrated Diva with a huge following around the world, so I should have known tickets would sell quickly. The foyers and bars of the National Concert Hall were as busy as I’ve ever seen them before a performance, and there was a bit of delay getting everyone into their seats at the start as it was so full.

Last night’s concert wasn’t the normal Friday night affair at the NCH. There were no microphones and no Paul Herriott on stage so I presume it wasn’t broadcast on RTÉ Lyric FM as the weekly concerts usually are, or even recorded. I guess there were contractual reasons for that. The National Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Ciprian Teodorașcu from Romania, as of course is the star of the show herself.

I thought Angela Gheorghiu took a little while to get into her stride, not helped by the tempo for the second number Che farò senza Euridice? which I thought was far too slow. By the time we got to Song to the Moon from Rusalka, however, she was in full flow; thereafter the concert just got better and better, especially after the wine break (which was after the Habanera from Carmen). Gheorghiu’s voice seems well suited to Puccini, and the two of his arias in the second half were particularly fine.

Angela Gheorghiu was not only in excellent voice but also looked every inch the glamorous operatic superstar we expected. In the first half she was dressed in a black dress with a plunging neckline and in the second in a blazing red gown. She established a huge rapport with the audience, making a point of turning around from time to time and singing to the folk in the choir stalls.

Picture Credit: National Symphony Orchestra.

The concert was of standard operatic repertoire but I didn’t know what Parla più piano was until I read the programme notes: it’s the love them from The Godfather, usually sung in English as Speak Softly Love. The last time I heard that was at my Mother’s funeral. Can that really have been three years ago?

The performance was received very warmly indeed, with loud cheers and standing ovations. There were encores too, of course. I just knew the first would be an Irish song, and so it was – The Last Rose of Summer. The next was Puccini’s O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi and the one after that was Granada, another standard component of the concert repertoire.

There may have been more encores, but I had to leave after three to get the train home after an unforgettable evening which was a much needed tonic after an exhausting week.

Tchaikovsky, O’Leary and Beethoven at the NCH

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2022 by telescoper

Last night I attended another Friday evening concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin by the National Symphony Orchestra directed by Kenneth Montgomery, featuring yet another world premiere.

Friday evening concerts are all broadcast live on RTÉ Lyric FM and Jane O’Leary, the composer of the intriguing work unfolding soundscapes for piano and orchestra, was in the audience last night for what was the broadcast premiere of her composition; the world premiere of this piece was the night before, in Galway, where Jane O’Leary lives.   I thought it was a fascinating atmospheric piece with the brightness of the piano played by Finghin Collins contrasted with a wide variety of orchestral colours.

Talking of contrasts, the O’Leary piece was itself contrasted sharply with the two more familiar pieces performed either side of it. The concert opened with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. This is a bit more than the usual lollipop you tend to get to start a concert, as it is a substantial work of four movements that lasts about 30 minutes. Though not a symphony, and performed by strings only rather than a full orchestra, it is a rather symphonic piece in the way it develops. The first movement, in Sonatina form, is a clear tribute to Mozart. The second movement, Valse, is very familiar and is sometimes performed on its own. Though not in my view one of Tchaikovsky’s more compelling works, it makes for a very enjoyable listen.

After the wine break we had a very familiar piece, Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (“The Pastoral”). It’s interesting that this hugely popular work was actually composed alongside the 5th Symphony (and both were premiered at the same concert in 1808) because they contrast so much in temperament and texture and that the 6th Symphony is an overtly programmatic work, which the 5th definitely is not. The Pastoral is celebration of the composer’s love of nature, starting with “awakening of joyful feelings upon arrival in the country” depicted in the first movement. It does have its darker moments, especially in the tempestuous 4th movement but the overall mood is upbeat and at times even jolly.

Unusually, Kenneth Montgomery had the double basses all lined up at the back of the orchestra, behind the wind instruments, for this performance which is something I’ve never seen before. The winds, especially the brass instruments, were in particularly good form and the orchestra definitely succeeded in evoking the elemental power expressed by Beethoven’s composition. The performance was much appreciated by the audience at the NCH.

It was quite a long programme and I only just made it back to Pearse station in time to have my usual hot sausage roll before the train back to Maynooth. This is the kind of concert I like very much, juxtaposing the familiar classics with brand new works and am very happy the NSO does programmes like this!

Maxim Vengerov at the National Concert Hall

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , on October 1, 2022 by telescoper

It’s not often that you get the chance to be present at the world premiere of a symphony, but that was the case last night when I went to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Ina Boyle Symphony No. 2 The Dream of the Rood was composed by Ina Boyle in 1930 but hadn’t been performed anywhere until last night. In fact Boyle was a prolific composer but few of her works were performed in her lifetime, largely because of her geographical isolation from the musical mainstream, and many still have not been.

Reading in the programme notes that Ina Boyle had composition lessons with Ralph Vaughan Williams, for which she travelled to London, I expected her Symphony No. 2 to show his influence but if it reminded me of any composer it would be Arnold Bax. Anyway, it’s a substantial work in three movements for a large orchestra.

The piece is inspired by a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem about the crucifixion of Christ, “rood” being an old world for “cross”. It opens with a rather folksy theme but the first movement – easily the best of the three – develops into sweeping melodic lines and moves into a more vigorous section describing the felling of the tree from which the cross was made. The other two movements (marked Adagio and Grave) represent a funeral procession and an exhortation to reflect on the meaning of the rood. Overall I thought there was too little tonal or rhythmic variety in the piece for it to be totally convincing as a symphony. However, as I’ve written on this blog many times, I go to concerts determined to get as much out of them as I can even if it isn’t fully satisfying in its entirety, there are parts of this work which are very good.

Traditionally in a concert of classical music the Symphony comes after the interval and the Concerto for so instrument comes before. This usual ordering was turned on its head at last night’s concert as after the wine break we had violinist Maxim Vengerov playing two works. No doubt most people came to hear Maxim Vengerov rather than the Symphony by Boyle and it was a good plan to put the latter first to discourage people from leaving at the interval.

I was surprised when Vengerov appeared on stage resplendent in a cobalt blue suit with matching trainers, but there is no question that he is a very charismatic performer. The Violin Concerto No. 1 by Sergei Prokofiev is a very interesting piece that veers between a tender, almost childlike, simplicity and pyrotechnic energy verging on the savage. It does have some of the call-and-answer moments between soloist and orchestra of a traditional concerto, but at times this piece feels more like a blazing row than a civilized discussion.

The second piece was Tzigane by Maurice Ravel, a much shorter work in the form of a rhapsody starting with a long solo cadenza for the violin leading into a succession of virtuosic dance-like passages of increasing complexity and excitement. It’s obviously a technically demanding work but Vengerov looked like he was enjoying every minute!

Maxim Vengerov last night. The suit looked brighter in the flesh.
Picture Credit: National Symphony Orchestra

Vengerov, who has played many times in Dublin, was a huge hit with the audience and was greeted at the end with rapturous applause. He rewarded us with an encore of a Bach piece for solo violin, dedicated the victims of the conflict in Ukraine.

And then it was back to Pearse station for the train home to Maynooth.

P.S. I wonder if Maxim Vengerov has a brother called Minim?

R.I.P. Pharaoh Sanders (1940-2022)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on September 25, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday I heard the sad news that yet another legendary jazz musician – the tenor saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders – has passed away at the age of 81. As well as having one of the iconic beards of jazz, he had a unique and instantly recognizable style on tenor sax, heavily influenced by African and Asian music, sometimes involving raucous flurries of notes, sometimes overblowing, biting the reed or growling into the horn to achieve unusual effects, and sometimes playing with a contemplative lyricism evoking a deep sense of spirituality.

Pharaoh Sanders began his recording career in the 1960s with John Coltrane on the great albums Ascension and Meditation. His playing then was avant-garde free jazz somewhat reminiscent of Albert Ayler but with a strong influence of Coltrane whom he influenced in return. Later on he embraced wider influences, including electronic instruments, as exemplified by the album Thembi. Later he moved away from free jazz improvisation to more traditional approaches. His recorded output decreased from the end of the 1980s but he carried on touring extensively and still creating wonderful music.

I’ve had the great privilege to hear Pharaoh Sanders play live on a number of occasions and he was terrific every time. He played at the National Concert Hall in Dublin just a few years ago but I was unable to make it to the concert.

I’ve been listening to Pharaoh Sanders tracks all morning to remind myself what a great musician he was. Out of all the superb tracks I could have picked going back to the mid-60s I picked this one, from the 1987 album Africa which I think exemplifies his later style very well. The track is You’ve got to have freedom:

P.S. You might be interested to know that the drummer on this track, Idris Muhammed, also played the drums on Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill way back in 1956…

Berg & Mahler at the National Concert Hall

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , on September 10, 2022 by telescoper
Obligatory Souvenir Programme

Last night I made it to the National Concert Hall in Dublin for the opening concert of the season for the National Symphony Orchestra directed by Chief Conductor Jaime Martín. It’s been three years since the last full season of these weekly concerts so let’s hope we get a complete set this time.

The programme for last night’s concert comprised two works by Austrian composers, Alban Berg‘s Violin Concerto (with soloist Simone Lamsma) and Gustav Mahler‘s Fifth Symphony. Each of these great pieces in its own way explores a vast emotional landscape and together they made for a compelling and moving performance.

Berg’s Violin Concerto, composed in 1935, is dedicated “to the memory of an Angel”, namely Manon Gropius, who died of polio at the age of just 18. She was the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius (Alma Mahler’s second husband, whom she married four years after Mahler’s death).

The work is divided into two movements, each of which is in two parts. It is often described as a completely atonal (serialist) piece but it’s is composed in such a way that the twelve tones are sometimes grouped in such a way as to suggest an underlying tonality. Emotionally the piece ranges from the poignant to the fiery. Anyone who has experienced grief will recognize the sense of rage that at times bursts through. In other passages, though, the music has an austere beauty that is completely compelling.

After the wine break we had Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. This work is best known for the 4th movement Adagietto but I’ve always felt that section fits rather uncomfortably with the rest of the composition. That’s not to say that I dislike the Adagietto, which I think is one of the most beautiful movements in all music, and regularly makes me shed a tear. I just think it’s a bit of a detour from the rest of the work. I suppose one should think of it as a restful interlude before the journey reaches its climax in the 5th movement Rondo which was played with electrifying passion last night.

Like the Berg piece, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony veers across a vast emotional landscape. The conductor Bruno Walter described it as “passionate, wild, pathetic, buoyant, solemn, tender, full of the sentiments of which the human heat is capable, but still ‘only’ music”. Although by no means an atonal work, there isn’t really a clear tonal signature: at least five different keys are used and there are passages in which the key is ambiguous.

The first movement begins with a funeral march, introduced with a solo trumpet statement like a fanfare, followed by lyrical passages from the strings. The second movement is extremely tempestuous, contrasting moods of melancholy and frenzy, with the trumpet theme from the first movement returning. The third movement, a long Scherzo, is unexpectedly playful, with two thematic forms bouncing off each other. Then there’s the soulful longing of the Adagietto, beautifully played last night to a rapt audience and the joyful finale in an unambiguously major key.

Overall this was a superb concert, with the large orchestral forces marshalled superbly by Jaime Martín. I have to mention the brass section in particular, who were brilliant. It wasn’t a full house, which is a shame for the season’s curtain-raiser, but those who were there clearly enjoyed it enormously.

As it happens, last night was the first of five concerts by Garth Brooks (who he? Ed) at Croke Park. The train from Maynooth unto Dublin earlier in the evening was absolutely crammed with people (many in cowboy hats) going there and the train back was similarly full with people leaving. Fortunately I was only slightly delayed getting home by the congestion, though I think there were seriously issues with later trains. There is another concert by him next Friday, when there is another concert at the NCH so fingers crossed that my travel to and from that isn’t too badly affected either…

Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke: Singin’ the Blues

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , on September 4, 2022 by telescoper

 Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke became a jazz-age romantic legend not only by playing brilliant cornet but also by drinking too much bad prohibition liquor resulting his premature death in 1931, at the age of only 28. His short life was punctuated by episodes of very bad health caused by chronic alcoholism in an era when the only booze that was available was bathtub gin or rotgut whisky. Despite all his problems, Bix still gave us some of the greatest ever jazz records.

Although he was of middle-class white origins, Bix’s playing was deeply admired by leading black musicians of the day notably the great Louis Armstrong. Some years ago I listened to a radio play called Bix: Singing the Blues which is a fictional account of the only occasion in which Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong played together, in a private, after-hours session. Given the description of that as “fictional” I assumed that Bix and Satchmo didn’t know each other well. Recently, however, I came across a recording of Louis Armstrong talking about Bix Beiderbecke that shows I was wrong:

(There is one little bit of confusion in the discussion: Bix wasn’t 31 when he died: he died in 1931, at the age of 28. )

So how good was Bix? Well, make your own mind up. Here is his classic version of Singing the Blues, with Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra in 1927, a three minute track in which Bix’s stunning solo starts a minute in and lasts a minute.

Jazz being largely improvised music, it is often a bit rough around the edges; even the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens have their share of duff notes. Bix’s solo on this record with that beautiful ringing, bell-like tone, and effortless swing at what is quite a slow tempo, is as close to perfection as you’ll ever find.

But you don’t need to take my word for it.

During his heyday in the1920s Louis Armstrong played virtually every popular tune that was put in front of him, including many songs that seemed unpromising from a jazz perspective, and in the process turned any amount of base metal into solid gold. Singin’ the Blues was a smash hit, but Louis Armstrong refused to play it. When asked why he replied that he didn’t think he could play it as well as Bix. There is no higher praise.

Chorizo Sandwich

Posted in Music with tags , , on August 9, 2022 by telescoper

Now that the social media fuss about ChorizoGate is dying down a bit I thought I’d change the subject completely by posting some music. This tune is by a band call Los Alacranes and it’s entitled … oh no! … Chorizo Sandwich

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: