Archive for the Music Category

100 Years of Jazz on Record

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , on February 26, 2017 by telescoper

Today marks a very significant centenary in the history of music, specifically Jazz. Much of the origins and early development of Jazz is lost in the mists of time, but there is one point on which most music historians agree. The first commercial recording session that produced a record that nowadays is recognisable as Jazz happened exactly one hundred years ago today, on 26th February 1917, in the New York studios of the Victor label.

The band was called the ‘Original Dixieland Jass Band‘. A few months later they changed the “Jass” to “Jazz” and the name stuck. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band is usually referred by Jazz buffs as the ODJB.

Led by cornettist Nick LaRocca and clarinettist Larry Shields, the ODJB was a group of white musicians from in and around New Orleans who had picked up their musical ideas from listening to musicians there, including playing for the pioneering mixed-race band led by Papa Laine, before moving to Chicago which is where they were spotted by representatives of the Victor label. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s worth emphasizing that 1917 was also a significant year for New Orleans itself, as that was the year that the red light district Storyville was shut down (as a threat to the health of the US Navy). Since Storyville had provided many of the opportunities for black musicians to work, its closure started  a mass exodus to Chicago. That, and a desire among black musicians to leave the deeply racist South, is why most of the classic “New Orleans” Jazz records were actually made in Chicago.

Although they don’t represent the true origins of jazz, the ODJB were fine musicians who played with a great deal of pizzazz and were highly original and innovative. Audiences also found them great to dance to. The first single to be issued as a result of the historic first session was Livery Stable Blues. It was an instant hit and was followed by dozens more. As well as leading to fame and fortune for the ODJB, it paved the way for a century of Jazz on record.

Beethoven and Strauss at St David’s Hall 

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on February 25, 2017 by telescoper

I’m a bit late writing about this because the last two days have been very busy, but on Wednesday evening (22nd February) I went to a concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The first half of the programme featured two pieces by Beethoven, starting with a piece that was entirely new to me: his rarely heard concert overture Zur Namensfeier. It’s just a short piece (7 minutes long) and isn’t among Beethoven’s best compositions, but it did at least get the Philharmonia warmed up for the main event.

The Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) wasn’t immediately popular when it was first performed in 1809 – perhaps because it was considered a bit grandiose – but is now firmly established as one of the pinnacles of the repertoire. The soloist was the superb Pierre-Laurent Aimard who gave us an electrifying performance, though I did feel that some of the transitions from soloist to orchestra could have been a little smoother.

The second half of the programme was devoted to a single work by Richard Strauss, for which the orchestra was augmented  by the addition of brass and a larger percussion section.

For many people, the tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra is irrevocably associated with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey  as well as the BBC coverage of the Apollo moon landings. The opening section, representing sunrise (“as the individual enters the world, or the world enters the individual”), was memorably featured in both. Perhaps that association is why the opening section of this work sounds very modern, when it was actually written in 1896.

This is a spine-tingling piece to hear live, especially with the timpani, trumpets and splendid organ of St David’s Hall giving it everything.  The principal percussionist was clearly loving every minute.

But the sunrise is only one section of nine and it’s a pity that it’s often the only part we get to hear. The other sections are rather more recognisably late-romantic, but they cover a huge range as Strauss expresses in music various aspects of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche that inspired this piece.

The whole performance was brilliantly energised. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen got so carried away at one point that the baton slipped from his hand and flew into the First Violins. That’s definitely the first time I’ve seen that happen!
The concert ended to tumultuous applause: St David’s Hall wasn’t full, but the audience was very appreciative of an excellent performance. 

Le Vin herbé

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 17, 2017 by telescoper

Last night I went to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff for the opening night of Welsh National Opera’s new production of Le Vin herbé  by Swiss-born composer Frank Martin. This isn’t a work with which I was previously familiar so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but then that’s why I usually particularly hard to get to see departures from the standard repertoire. It’s not that I’m at all bored with Mozart, Puccini et al but that it’s always good to keep an ear open for new things.  In fact there is only one performance of this piece in Cardiff this year before it goes on tour. Fortunately I was able to make it.

Le Vin herbé is based on the story of Tristan and Iseult ; the title refers to the potion that the two lead characters accidentally drink which makes them fall in love and thus betray King Mark of Cornwall, who is Tristan’s uncle and Iseult’s husband-to-be. Naturally tt all ends in disaster, with the two lovers both dying. But if the story makes you think of Wagner’s epic operatic telling of this legend, Tristan und Isolde then you need to think again, as this is a very different piece. Le Vin herbé is a much more intimate work, with a relatively small case and a band of just eight musicians (a piano and seven string players) who, in this production, were at centre stage throughout the performance rather than in the pit. The main characters are played by tenor Tom Randle (Tristan) and soprano Caitlin Hulcup (Iseult) – both of whom were brilliant – and some of their lines are also sung by the chorus and there are also solo storytellers to provide bits of the narrative. The set and staging is very minimal. In fact it’s more of a chamber oratorio than an Opera. Also the entire performances lasts under two hours, with no interval. Quite a lot shorter than Wagner’s version!

I think the instrumental music by Frank Martin is very fine indeed, and very well played by the musicians directed by James Southall, and the principals and chorus were in good voice. Having said that I think Martin’s writing for voices is less successful. The vocal lines consciously evokes mediaeval plainsong, which works quite well for the chorus but makes it difficult for the soloists to generate any melodic drive. It’s not helped by the libretto either, which is rather dry and undramatic. On the way home from the performance I couldn’t help wondering what it might have been like had the text been in mediaeval Latin! The staging was at times effective: some of the scenes between Tristan and Iseult were very moving, but the stage was too busy and confusing when the whole chorus got involved.

This probably sounds very critical, but I don’t mean it to be. There’s much to enjoy in this production, so I’d encourage you to go and form their own opinion. It’s on tour in Bristol, Milton Keynes, Llandudno, Plymouth and Southampton. Last night’s performance got a very warm reception from a pretty full house which, for an unusual work like this, is a very good sign.

How Time Passes

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on February 15, 2017 by telescoper

I don’t seem to have had much time recently to post any lengthy pieces about music, and today is no exception, but I couldn’t resist sharing this fascinating title track from the album How Time Passes which was recorded in New York City in October 1960. It features Don Ellis on trumpet and  Jaki Byard on piano (with Ellis doubling on piano sometimes to allow Byard to play saxophones) along with Ron Carter on bass and Charlie Persip on drums. The album is a fascinating collection of modern jazz performances informed by  contemporary classical music, a blend that came to be known as Third Stream. This track is particularly unusual because of its elastic approach to tempo – it is constantly speeding up and slowing down in a way that makes you wonder how the band stays together – but it also features some beautiful work on trumpet by Don Ellis.

 

P.S. As well as being a superb jazz musician, Don Ellis was also a fine composer. Among other things he wrote the theme music for the film The French Connection. Not a lot of people know that.

 

 

Haydn and the Herschels

Posted in History, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by telescoper

Last night I was listening to a broadcast of a concert performance of Haydn’s “Creation” on BBC Radio 3, featuring the London Philharmonic under the direction of Sir Roger Norrington. During the interval (between Parts I and II) the presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch cast doubt in the story (which I’ve heard quite often), that Joseph Haydn was at least partly inspired to write The Creation by a trip he took during a stay in England to see the observatory of astronomer William Herschel. This story is repeated in a number of places around the web, including here, from which source I quote:

On 15 June 1792. Joseph Haydn visited William Herschel – basoonist, composer, astronomer – at his observatory near Slough. Herschel introduced Haydn to the Milky Way and, quite possibly, the planet Uranus, which he’d discovered ten years earlier. Some say Haydn took this glimpse of the infinite as the inspiration for his oratorio The Creation. Seems plausible.

It does indeed seem plausible. It is a matter of record that Haydn did  visit the Observatory House in Slough on 15th June 1792, which is where William Herschel lived with his sister Caroline at the time. (Interestingly, the day before this visit Haydn was at Ascot watching the horse-racing.)

However, according to William Herschel’s own records he wasn’t at the Observatory House on this day. In fact he had been away since May 1792 visiting various locations in England and Wales, before eventually arriving in Glasgow to receive an honorary degree. The notion that Herschel provided Haydn with the inspiration to write The Creation is therefore false.

Or is it?

William Herschel may not have been at home when Haydn called on 15th June 1792, but Caroline certainly was: Haydn’s name is recorded in her visitor’s book on that date. In his diary Haydn makes a note of the dimensions of the telescope (40ft) but does not mention actually looking through it, which is not surprising if he was there during the day.  There’s no other record of this visit of which I’m aware that says for sure what happened on that day, but Caroline certainly could have described what she had observed during her career as an astronomer, both on her own and with William, and also shown Haydn drawings, catalogues and star charts. Caroline Herschel was an extremely accomplished astronomer in her own right, so who’s to say it was not she rather than her brother who provided Haydn with the inspiration for his oratorio?

So it could well be that it was Herschel that inspired The Creation after all, but Caroline rather than William…

R.I.P. Nicolai Gedda (1925-2017)

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on February 13, 2017 by telescoper

I only heard yesterday the very sad news that the fine Swedish operatic tenor Nicolai Gedda passed away on 8th January 2017 at the age of 91.  The news wasn’t announced by his family until February 9th, which explains part of the reason I am so late to post a little tribute. This is from the first recording I ever heard of die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (made in 1964, conducted by Otto Klemperer) in which Gedda sings Tamino alongside the equally wonderful Gundula Janowitz as Pamina.  This CD played a huge role in getting me interested in Opera, so it is with special sadness but also special admiration that I say farewell to Nicolai Gedda.

R.I.P. Nicolai Gedda (1925-2017)

 

Llŷr Williams plays more Beethoven

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on February 10, 2017 by telescoper

Still determined to enjoy civilisation as much as I can while we still have it, last night I went to a splendid concert at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff featuring acclaimed Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams in the eighth (and penultimate) concert in a three-year series in which he is playing all the solo piano compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven.

The first half of last night’s recital comprised two very contrasting works united by the fact that both were dedicated to pupils of Beethoven. The first, the “Grande Sonata” No. 4 in E-flat major (Opus 7) dedicated to Anna Louise Barbara Keglevich (also known as Babette). This is an early work, in four movements in a relatively conventional classical style, and you can hear the influence of both Haydn and Mozart in it.

The second piece, much later and more famous, was the Opus 78 “a Therese“, dedicated to the Countess von Brunswick. This is a radically different piece, in just two movements, with a very brief slow introduction of just a few bars after which it is all at a sprightly tempo. It’s quite a odd work, really, and probably quite hard to play with flurries of notes coming thick and fast.

 

 

After the interval we heard two more sonatas, the connection between them being that both have nicknames: Sonata No. 15 (Opus 28) “Pastoral” and Sonata No. 26 (Opus 81a) “Les Adieux”. The nicknames given to some of these works are usually not by the composer and are sometimes rather misleading. The name “Pastoral” was attached by a music publisher not by Beethoven himself, but it does describe the mood of at least some of this piece, which does evoke the countryside. It’s a lovely work, actually, one of my favourites from the entire repertoire.

‘Les Adieux’ is a work in three movements describing respectively the farewell, absence and return of the Archduke Rudolf as he was forced to leave Vienna when it was attacked by Napoleon’s army in 1809.  The second movement’s moving expression of loss and loneliness, is followed by a jubilant finale marking Rudolf’s return.

That was the end of the advertised programme, but not quite the end of the concert because after very warm applause, Llŷr Williams returned to play a rather substantial encore – the 32 Variations in C Minor (also by Beethoven). It’s not quite as substantial as it seems, though, as each variation is only 10-15 seconds long.

Anyway, this was another  hugely enjoyable evening of piano music. I’m just sorry I came to the series rather late and there’s now only one left (in May 2017). Still, he happened to mention that the entire set is being released as an 11 CD Box set later this year…