Archive for the Music Category

The WNO Orchestra at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on January 15, 2018 by telescoper

It has been a very busy weekend but yesterday afternoon I took time out to visit St David’s Hall in Cardiff to hear the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera conducted by Tomáš Hanus in a programme of music by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Dvořák. I’ve noticed that many of the international concerts that are a regular part of Cardiff life have been moved from weekday evenings to weekend afternoons. No doubt that it is for commercial reasons. I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of matinee concerts, but as it happens I’m not going to be available for many of the weekday evening concerts for the foreseeable future so I thought I’d give this one a go. The programme was a middle-of-the-road bums-on-seats affair, but if it brings people into the concert hall that is a good thing and it was nice to see a big crowd, including a sizeable contingent of schoolchildren, there to enjoy the show.

First up we had a favourite piece of mine, Beethoven’s  Egmont overture, inspired by the story of Lamoral, Count of Egmont whose execution in 1568 sparked an uprising Spanish occupation that eventually led to the independence of the Netherlands. It’s a stirring, dramatic work, ideal for opening a concert programme. I thought the tempo was a bit slow at the start, which made increase in speed towards the end a little jarring, but otherwise it was well played the full orchestra, arranged with six double-basses right at the back of the stage facing the conductor with the brass either side. That was very effective at generating a rich dark sonority both in this piece and in the Dvořák later on.

The next item was a very familiar work indeed, the Violin Concerto in E minor by Felix Mendelssohn. This is perhaps best known for its lvoely second movement (in which they key changes to C major) but the other two movements are really innovative and virtuosic. In the wrong hands the slow movement can be horribly schmaltzy but Norwegian soloist Henning Kraggerud managed to bring out is beauty without wallowing in its romanticism. It was a very fine performance, warmly appreciated by the audience. Henning Kraggerud treated us to an encore in the form of an intruguing piece by a musician previously unknown to me, Olof Bull, a fellow Norwegian and a contemporary of Mendelssohn.

After the wine break the main event of was another familiar piece, the Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) by Antonín Dvořák, a piece full of nostalgia for his Czech homeland written while the composer was living in America. It’s a piece I’ve heard very many times but it still manages to stay fresh, and yesterday’s performance was full of colour of verve. Tomáš Hanus (himself Czech) chose this piece as a tribute to an old friend who passed away last year, and it was was played with great passion.

I’d heard all the pieces in this programme many times, both in concert and on record, but they all stand up to repeated listening, simply because they’re so very good. I do like to hear new works – and do wish the programming at St David’s Hall were a little more adventurous – but they do have to make ends meet and there’s in any case much to enjoy in the standard repertoire, especially when it’s played by a fine orchestra. Such pieces can fall flat when you get the feeling that the musicians themselves are a bit bored with them, but that emphatically wasn’t the case yesterday.

It will soon be time to Welsh National Opera’s new season, with a new production of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino alongside revivals of Tosca and Don Giovanni. It’s going to be tricky to see them all, but I’ll give it a go!

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Yellow Tango

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on January 12, 2018 by telescoper

Before Christmas I posted one of my favourite pieces of music, The Fable of Mabel, performed by a band led by Serge Chaloff and featuring pianist Dick Twardzik (who also composed the piece). I thought I’d follow this up with another piece by Twardzik, this time in a trio with Carson Smith on bass and the excellent Peter Littman on drums.

This piece was recorded in late 1954, at which time the two great influences on jazz piano were Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Here’s a good example of how Twardzik manages to nod in the very different directions of these two great musicians – the Monk influence in particular stands out a mile when the rhythm switches from Latin-American to 4/4 at about 1:43 – while also managing to find a very original voicea which was all his own. It’s such a terrible shame that within a few months of this session Twardzik was dead (of a heroin overdose, at the age of 24) and jazz had lost one of its most promising young artists.

Hold ’em Joe – Sonny Rollins

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on January 6, 2018 by telescoper

So I’m in Dublin airport waiting to board a (delayed) flight. Since it’s cold and dark outside I thought I’d take the opportunity to use the free airport Wi-fi to share something that put a bit of a spring in my step when I heard it on the radio a couple of days ago. It’s a truly phenomenal performance on tenor saxophone by the great Sonny Rollins over an infectious calypso rhythm generated by Mickey Roker on drums. Enjoy!

 

 

The Fable of Mabel

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on December 22, 2017 by telescoper

Now, as a special Christmas treat, I present for you one of my all-time favourite pieces of music. It was recorded by Serge Chaloff Octet in Boston, in September 1954 and I’ve loved it ever since I first heard it on The Best of Jazz, the radio show that was presented by Humphrey Lyttelton for many years on Radio 2, way back in the 1980s. Humph had eclectic musical tastes and I am forever in his debt for introducing me to relatively obscure pieces such as this which have given me so much pleasure over the years. I can see I’m not the only WordPress blogger who loves this track too!

The lineup for this track is Serge Chaloff (baritone sax) Herb Pomeroy (trumpet) Gene DiStachio (trombone) Charlie Mariano (also saxophone) Varty Haritounian (trumpet) Dick Twardzik (piano) Ray Oliveri (bass) and Jimmy Zitano (drums). Serge Chaloff was a famously dissolute and chaotic character, who struggled to control a serious narcotics habit, but he was a marvellously accomplished player of the huge and unwieldy baritone sax. Chaloff plays beautifully on this track but the star is the amazingly innovative pianist and composer Dick Twardzik, who wrote the piece. Had he not died so young (in 1955, of a heroin overdose, on tour in Paris with Chet Baker, at the age of just 24) he would have become a household name in Jazz.

Twardzik had this to say about The Fable of Mabel on the sleevenote:

The Fable of Mabel was introduced to jazz circles in 1951-52 by the Serge Chaloff Quartet. Audiences found this satirical jazz legend a welcome respite from standard night club fare. In this legend, Mabel is depicted as a woman who loves men, music and her silver saxophone that played counterpoint (her own invention which proved impractical). The work is divided into three movements: first, New Orleans; second Classical; and third, Not Too Sad An Ending. The soulful baritone solo Serge Chaloff traces Mabel’s humble beginnings working railroad cars in New Orleans to her emergence as a practising crusader for the cause of Jazz. During her Paris days on the Jazz Houseboat, her struggle for self-expression is symbolized by an unusual saxophone duet Charlie Mariano and Varty Haritrounian. Mabel always said she wanted to go out blowing. She did.

This piece is radically different from the mixture of bop tunes and standards that provided the bulk of the repertoire for Chaloff’s band in the 1950s and it provides a superb example of how the musical revolution pioneered by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk et al. opened the doors and ushered in a wave of creativity that fanned out in all kinds of unexpected directions. I love The Fable of Mabel for its quirkiness, the virtuosity of the playing, and for the edgy, Noir-ish atmosphere that it generates. Incidentally, it’s interesting that most of the musicians on this track are of Eastern European extraction, as were many of the leading lights of Film Noir. I always felt this track would make a perfect soundtrack for such a film.

If ever got asked to go on one of those radio programmes where you have to pick your favourite pieces of music, this would definitely be among my selections. I hope you enjoy it too!

The Sonny Rollins Williamsburg Bridge

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on December 12, 2017 by telescoper

Between 1959 and 1961 the great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins took a break from making recordings to practice intensively, developing his technique and expanding his musical vocabulary. Living in New York City, but lacking anywhere private to play, he went every day to Williamsburg Bridge to practice. The first record he made after this `sabbatical’ was called The Bridge, released in 1962, and now regarded as a classic:

There is now a move afoot to have the Williamsburg Bridge renamed as the Sonny Rollins Williamsburg Bridge. There is a petition here.  Please consider signing it. I have!

Here’s a little video about The Sonny Rollins Bridge project:

And if you’re on Twitter can follow their account here:

 

Messiah

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Music, Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 10, 2017 by telescoper

A performance of Handel‘s Messiah  at St David’s Hall  is always a pretty sure sign that the Christmas season is upon us, although the work itself was actually first performed at Easter and it’s by no means clear why it ended up almost universally regarded as a Christmas work . Messiah 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.

Whatever the reason 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, 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. I went to a performance of Messiah (in the same venue) about this time last year but I relished the chance to hear it again last night.

As it turned out, the pairing of Cardiff Polyphonic Choir with baroque orchestra Réjouissance produced a very different performance from last year. The choir, numbering about sixty members, was in fine voice and the much smaller orchestra meant that the chorus really dominated the show.

Generally speaking I’m not a fan of period instrument performances. I can see the virtue of having a lighter instrumental touch in this case, and don’t have a problem with using forces of similar scale to those Handel would have used (e.g. two oboes, two cellos, one double bass, etc). I do not however understand why musicians insist on using outdated instruments. This is particularly true for the trumpets. Nobody will ever convince me that a baroque trumpet isn’t an inferior version of the modern instrument. All credit to the players for doing the best they could, but I really don’t see the point.

Anyway, that rant aside, I very much enjoyed the performance, especially the lovely singing by all four soloists and the choir, who were outstanding.
Now, I wonder where I’ll hear Messiah  next year?

Ellington meets Tchaikovsky

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on December 9, 2017 by telescoper

Jazz and classical music don’t always provide a palatable blend, but here’s one cocktail that definitely works, especially in the festive season. It’s from the 1960 album The Nutcracker Suite by Duke Ellington, based on original music for the ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovksy. Most of the arranging on the album was, I think, done by Duke Ellington’s regular collaborator Billy Strayhorn,  and the result is every bit as witty, elegant and charming as you’d expect. No doubt some classical music fans will hate this, but I think it’s wonderful!

This is the Overture. If you like it do check out the other tracks!