Archive for the Music Category

Music for the Solstice

Posted in Music with tags , on June 21, 2018 by telescoper

Well, in case you didn’t realize, the summer solstice (when the Sun reaches its most northerly point in the sky and is directly overhead on the Tropic of Cancer) occurred at 10.07 UT (11.07  British Summer Time Daylight Saving Time in Ireland) today. I guess that means it’s all downhill from here. Anyway, this gives me some sort of excuse for me posting a piece of music I’ve loved ever since I was a young child for its energy and wit. It’s the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream,  by Felix Mendelssohn which he started to compose when he was just 16 years old, but didn’t complete until later so it’s his Opus 21. This performance is by the Leipzig Genwandhausorchester conducted by Kurt Mazur. Enjoy!

Incidentally, I listed to a very nice performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday evening when I was still in Cardiff. It reminded me of when we performed that play whhen I was at school, and by Bottom received a warm hand.

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Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra: Mahler Symphony No. 3

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Music with tags , , , , on June 18, 2018 by telescoper

Well, I’m back in Maynooth after a weekend in Cardiff, on the Sunday of which I went to St David’s Hall to see the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra playing Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony. Actually this concert was originally scheduled to take place on the evening of Friday 15th June, which is why I booked a ticket to return from Bonn in time to see it instead of waiting for the formal close of the meeting. As it turns out, my flight was so late I would have missed it but fortunately the Rolling Stones intervened. Because Jagger et al were performing at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on Friday (with all the consequent congestion and traffic disruption that implies) it was decided to shift the concert to Sunday 18th, but I couldn’t be bothered to change my flight.

Anyway, it proved an excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Gustav Mahler spoke of his Third Symphony as being “of such magnitude that it mirrors the whole world” and you can see what he was getting at by just looking at the scale of the forces arrayed on stage when it’s about to be performed live. For yesterday’s concert at St David’s Hall, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra was augmented by the WNO Community Chorus and the Choristers of St David’s Metropolitan Cathedral Choir, as well as soloist mezzo soprano Kate Woolveridge.

The orchestra needed to perform this extravagant work is much larger than for a normal symphony, and it involves some unusual instrumentation: e.g. two harps, a contrabassoon, heaps of percussion (including tuned bells and double tympanists), etc. The string section was boosted by double-basses galore, and there’s also a part (for what I think was a flugelhorn) to be played offstage. The work is also extremely long, being spread over six movements of which the first is the longest (over 30 minutes). Yesterday the performance stretched to about 1 hour and 40 minutes overall, with no interval. I don’t know of any symphonic works longer than this, actually.

It’s worth pointing out that the orchestra and choir(s) tackling this immense work were non-professional. It’s also worth pointing out that the principal French Horn – who is given a lot to do in this piece – was none other than Dr Bernard Richardson, recently retired from the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.

I have to admit I have always had lot of trouble getting to grips with the first movement, in which various themes are repeatedly played off against each other, punctuated by a series of extravagant crescendo passages in which the orchestra threatened to blow the roof off. It is, at times, thrilling but also manic and, to me, rather indecipherable. The second movement, in the form of a minuet, is elegant enough, and was beautifully played (especially by the strings), but in comparison with the wayward exuberance of the first movement it sounds rather conventional.

The third movement, however, is totally gorgeous, especially in the passages featuring the offstage flugelhorn (?) and the string section of the orchestra on stage. From this point this piece started to bring me under its spell. The solo vocalist and choir(s) were marvellous in the fourth and fifth movements, the former a setting of a poem by Nietzsche and the latter a mixture of traditional verse and Mahler’s own words, but it was in the majestic sixth and final movement that the orchestra really reached its peak. This is one of the most romantic movements to be found in all of Mahler, passionate, lyrical and supremely uplifting. At times before the sixth movement the orchestra (especially the brass) had struggled a bit with the demands of the score, but the finale was as good a performance as you’ll hear anywhere.

Mahler’s 3rd Symphony is an epic journey through a landscape filled with dramatic contrasts. At times you wonder where you are going, and sometimes feel in danger of getting completely lost, but by the time you arrive triumphantly at the final destination all those doubts had melted away. Congratulations to the Cardiff Philharmonic on a very fine performance, warmly received by the audience.

After the concert there was a collection on behalf of the Forget-Me-Not Chorus, which supports people with dementia and their families through weekly singing sessions. I think this is a great initiative and made a donation on the way out – if you feel like doing likewise you can do so here.

Well, that’s my concert-going at St David’s Hall over for another season. Indeed, it’s probably the last concert I’ll be attending there for the foreseeable future, as I’ll be relocating fully to Ireland this summer. I’ll have many fine memories of listening to music there.

BBC NOW: Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich at St David’s Hall

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , on June 8, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I took my seat in St David’s Hall for a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård. It was an all-Russian menu, and very enjoyable it was.

The first course was the Violin Concerto by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It’s a familiar work but was ravishingly played by Latvian soloist Baiba Skride, who seem to revel in the virtuosic elements of this work, as well as bringing out the lyricism in the more romantic passages. The Orchestra were on top form too. I particularly enjoyed the way they dealt with the introduction of the famous `big tune’ in the first movement: brisker and with less of the tendency to wallow in it than you find in many performances.

The, after the wine break, we had the main dish for the evening, the Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich. This is a very famous work and is perhaps the most accessible of all the Shostakovich symphonies. It was an immediate success with Soviet critics and public alike when it was first performed in 1937, and though it marked Shostakovich’s return to favour with the authorities after his denunciation by Stalin, this work has the composer’s very characteristic sense of things not being quite as they seem on the surface. Indeed, in this and many other of his compositions, seems to manage to say one thing at the same time as saying the exact opposite of that thing; nowadays this might be called `constructive ambiguity’. This is especially in the finale, in which the sense of triumph is almost a parody of itself. Overall the Fifth Symphony is a sombre work, the dark undertone establish right at the start with an imposing theme on the cellos and double basses, but it has passages of great beauty too, especially in the slow third movement. Like all great symphonies – and this is one of the greatest – it takes you on a journey full of of excitement and interest. The 45 minutes or so of this performance seemed to fly by, and its ending was greeted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation from many in the audience.

It’s interesting to consider that only 60 years had elapsed between the composition of these two pieces, but what different worlds they represent!

Anyway, the full strength National Orchestra of Wales, produced a gripping performance of this tremendous work with every section playing at the top of its form and the finale really brought the house down. But you don’t have to take my word for it – the whole concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 next Tuesday, 12th June.

This concert is the last of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales season at St David’s Hall and indeed the last of at St David’s with Thomas Søndergård as Principal Conductor (though he will be conducting the Orchestra a couple of times at the Proms this summer). I wish him all the very best for his future musical adventures. It’s also the last concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales I’ll be attending before departing for Ireland. I don’t think I’ll get much chance to hear them after I’ve relocated, so let me take this opportunity to thank every single member of the Orchestra for the many performances I’ve enjoyed over the years, and to wish them well for the future.

Hullo Bolinas – Gary Burton

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on May 31, 2018 by telescoper

I don’t know why this track just came into my head but while it’s there I thought I’d share it. It’s from a rightly renowned album by Chick Corea and Gary Burton recorded at a live concert in Zurich in 1979, but this number just features Gary Burton on the vibes. I bought this album on vinyl when it first came out and was completely gobsmacked by the miraculous nature of Gary Burton’s four-mallet vibraphone playing, especially on this track. In a subsequent interview on the radio I heard Burton dismiss his extraordinary technical accomplishment, explaining that the mallets are really just like fingers and it is no harder than playing the piano. I think his modesty is misplaced, as fingers bend but mallets don’t. Or do they?

On Off Minor

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on May 19, 2018 by telescoper

One of the contributors to the `Out Thinkers’ event I went to a couple of weeks ago, Emer Maguire, talked about science and music. During the course of her presentation she mentioned one of the most common sets of chord changes in pop music, the I-V-vi-IV progression. In the key of C major, the chords of this progression would be C, G, Am and F. You will for example find this progression comes up often in the songs of Ed Sheeran (whoever that is).

These four chords include those based on the tonic (I), the dominant (V) and the sub-dominant (IV) – i.e. the three chords of the basic blues progression – as well as the relative minor (vi). The relative minor for a major key is a key with exactly the same notes (i.e. the same sharps and flats) in it, but with a different tonic. With these four chords (shuffled in various ways) you can reproduce the harmonies of a very large fraction of the modern pop repertoire. It’s a comfortable and pleasant harmonic progression, but to my ears it sounds a bit bland and uninteresting.

These thoughts came into my head the other night when I was listening to an album of music by Thelonious Monk. One of my `hobbies’ is to try to figure out what’s going on underneath the music that I listen to, especially jazz. I can’t really play the piano, but I have an electronic keyboard which I play around on while trying to figure out what chord progressions are being used. I usually make a lot of terrible mistakes fumbling around in this way, so my neighbours and I are grateful that I use headphones rather than playing out loud!

I haven’t done a detailed statistical study, but I would guess that the most common chord progression in jazz might well be ii-V-I, a sequence that resolves onto the tonic through a cadence of fifths. I think one of the things some people dislike about modern jazz is that many of the chord progressions eschew this resolution which can make the music rather unsettling or, to put it another way, interesting.

Here’s a great example of a Thelonious Monk composition that throws away the rule book and as a result creates a unique atmosphere; it’s called Off Minor and it’s one of my absolute favourite Monk tunes, recorded for Blue Note in 1947:

The composition follows the standard 32 bar format of AABA; the A section ends with a strange D sharp chord extended with a flattened 9th which clashes with a B in the piano melody. This ending is quite a shock given the more conventional changes that precede it.

But it’s the B section (the bridge) where it gets really fascinating. The first bar starts on D-flat, moves up to D, and then goes into a series of unresolved ii-V changes beginning in B-flat. That’s not particularly weird in itself, but these changes don’t take place in the conventional way (one each bar): the first does, but the second is over two bars; and the third over four bars. Moreover, after all these changes the bridge ends on an unresolved D chord. It’s the fact that each set of eight bars ends in mid-air that provides this piece with its compelling  sense of forward motion.

There’s much more to it than just the chords, of course. There are Monk’s unique voicings and playful use of time as he states the melody, and then there’s his improvised solo, which I think is one of his very best, especially in the first chorus as he sets out like a brave explorer to chart a path through this curious harmonic landscape..

Ed Sheeran, eat your heart out!

Prokofiev, Grieg and Beethoven at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2018 by telescoper

This afternoon found me once again at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, waiting for a concert to start.

This time it was the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Tomáš Hanus. And very enjoyable it was.

The first number was a bit of a taster for the forthcoming WNO season, which includes Prokofiev’s War and Peace and Rossini’s Lá Cenerentola. The latter being the story of Cinderella, it made sense to include Prokofiev’s Cinderella Suite from the ballet he wrote in the 1940s.

After that we had the evergreen Grieg’s Piano Concerto, by Grieg, played by the excellent Peter Donohoe, exactly how I like it: with all the right notes in the right order, and the Orchestra not too heavy on the banjoes.

Following the wine break we had Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a work which has to be one of his most uplifting pieces. Beethoven was very good at ‘uplifting’ so that means it is very special indeed.

A lovely concert, warmly received by the audience and a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Memories of Humph

Posted in Jazz, Politics with tags , , on April 25, 2018 by telescoper

Humphrey Lyttelton, who died on 25th April 2008

Today is a rather sad anniversary: it’s ten years to the day since the death of Humphrey Lyttelton. I posted a tribute to him here and have posted quite a few other items about Humph and his band (under this tag), including one that included this picture of my Dad (who died in 2007 and who was a lifelong fan of Humph) playing the drums with him in a pub in Newcastle:

I was reminded about Humph by the ongoing saga of this the UK Government’s scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation, who came to Britain from the West Indies in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Their arrival coincided with the rise of Humph’s career as a musician and bandleader; he started recording a long series of 78s for the Parlophone labour in late 1949. In the mid-50s Humph formed what he called his Paseo Jazz Band with a group of London-based Caribbean musicians and they made some lovely records, complete with infectious calypso rhythms. In his first volume of autobiography, I Play As I Please Humph wrote very frankly about the racism faced by these black musicians, even from Jazz fans. It is indeed hard to see how anyone can be a jazz fan and have such attitudes, but some people seem to manage it. Humph was one of those who welcomed this generation of immigrants with open arms, and in his book he argued strongly against racial prejudice. If he’d been alive today he would have had no time for the xenophobic attitudes espoused by the current Government that have created such a hostile environment in the UK for anyone deemed to be foreign.

Anyway, some time ago I came across this film from 1950 showing Humph’s band in full swing (playing King Oliver’s Snake Rag, a tune guaranteed to fill the dance floor) at a downstairs club on Oxford Street in London. Jazz was very much for dancing to in those days, and the opportunity to let the hair down and burn some leather on the floor must have been a welcome distraction from post-war austerity. As the voice-over says, the drinks on sale in the club were non-alcoholic, but I’m told a van used to turn up and sell beer surreptitiously outside…

Rest in peace, Humph. We still miss you.