Archive for BBC National Chorus of Wales

St David’s Day at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on March 2, 2017 by telescoper

Just a quick post to mention that I celebrated St David’s Day yesterday by going, appropriately enough, to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a special concert by the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales with soloists Rebecca Evans (soprano), Joshua Mills (tenor) and the very youthful Charlie Lovell-Jones (violin). The scheduled conductor, Gareth Jones, was indisposed so his place was taken by Adrian Partington (the Artistic Director of the BBC National Chorus of Wales).

The programme was entirely Welsh in origin and had a strong emphasis on vocal music, including many pieces I had never heard before, including songs by: Meirion Williams, Dilys Elwyn Edwards, R.S. Hughes, Idris Lewis, Joseph Parry, Evan Thomas Davies, Haydn Morris and, of course, Ivor Novello. There were also some instrumental pieces, including a cracking performance by 17-year old Charlie Lovell-Jones, of the Allegro movement from Sarakiz by Karl Jenkins.

The concert ended with a singalong, led by the chorus and soloists, of traditional Welsh favourites such as Sosban Fach, Calon Lân, Myfanwy and Cwm Rhonnda either side of a rare foray into the English language for We’ll Keep A Welcome In The Hillsides.  I was surprised to discover that Calon Lân is only a little over a hundred years old. I thought it was much older than that, but it’s still a lovely song (or hymn, really, as that’s what it is).

And of course no St David’s Day celebration would be complete without a rousing rendition of the Welsh National Anthem  Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (Land of my Fathers). Here’s a photograph of the closing scene. Note that the two vocal soloists had changed into Welsh Rugby Union shirts for the singalong part!

Here’s a picture of the closing stages, courtesy of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales twitter account.

st-davids

Four of us from the Cardiff University School of Physics & Astronomy attended the concert and we’re all in the picture. Bonus points if you can identify us!

Advertisements

Handel’s Messiah

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on December 14, 2016 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 being so strongly associated with this time of year. 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. It’s actually been far too long – six years in fact – since I last went to a performance of Messiah (in the same venue) so  I relished the chance to hear it again.

Messiah is the most frequently performed choral work in the entire repertoire, and so much has been said and written about it already that I’m not going to say much about here, except for one thing  that struck me about it last night that I hadn’t thought about before which makes it quite an unusual work: unlike most other oratorios I’ve heard, the four vocalists are not associated with specific characters or roles. The reason for that is that the work 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.

Last night’s performance involved the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera (conducted by Adrian Partington) and the BBC National Chorus of Wales (including Ed’s sister) with soloists Soraya Mafi (soprano), Patricia Bardon (mezzo), Ben Johnson (tenor) and James Platt (bass). Handel’s original scoring was for a relatively small orchestra and chorus but over the years it has become fashionable to perform it with larger forces. Last night the orchestra was modest in size, but the BBC National Chorus of Wales was more-or-less at full strength. There was a harpsichord.

I felt it took both the orchestra and the chorus a little while to warm up: the strings were a little ragged during the opening Sinfony and, early on,  the large choir seem to lack the sharpness  one might have expected given the very high standards to which they usually perform. Once they got into their stride, however, they were really excellent and Parts II and III (after the interval) were superb throughout. I can see the attraction of using smaller forces for this work, actually, because it’s much easier to bring a smaller choir into a tight focus. One the other hand, the larger choir makes the louder moments (such as the Hallelujah Chorus, for which as usual the audience stood) absolutely thrilling. It’s worth mentioning also that the orchestra expanded a little bit for Parts II and III – no brass or percussion are used in Part I – but trumpets and timpani appeared after the interval. I’d like to pick out the percussionist Patrick King (although to be honest his beard needs a bit more work) and the principal trumpet Dean Wright (whose brilliant solo playing during “The trumpet shall sound”” was absolutely thrilling when juxtaposed with the splendidly deep sonority of James Platt’s bass voice (whose beard is magnificent). I also enjoyed the crystal clarity and wonderful agility of soprano Soraya Mafi, especially on “I know that my redeemer liveth“.

All in all, it was a hugely enjoyable evening at St David’s Hall, which was so busy it seemed to take an age to get out at the end of the performance! The concert was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Monday 19th December at 7.30, so you can listen to it yourself and make your own mind up whether my comments above are fair.

Well, that will be the last of my concert-going for 2016 so I’d just like to thank all the musicians and singers I’ve had the pleasure of listening to since I returned to Cardiff for  shining some much-needed light into what has otherwise been a very gloomy year.

 

 

 

Belshazzar’s Feast

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on December 2, 2016 by telescoper

Last night I made my way through the foggy streets of Cardiff to St David’s Hall to attend a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (joined for the second half by the BBC National Chorus of Wales and Members of Bristol Choral Society) conducted by Martyn Brabbins for a programme of music by British composers, culminating in a performance of Belshazzar’s Feast by William Walton. The whole concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and you can listen to it here on iPlayer for the next month.

The concert began with the “concert overture” In the South (Alassio) by Edward Elgar. I put “concert overture” in inverted commas because, at about 25 minutes, it’s a bit long for an overture and is really more like a tone poem. Elgar wrote most of it when on holiday in Italy in 1904. He was actually planning to write a full symphony but the inspiration he’d hoped to get from fine weather didn’t transpire because it was even colder and damper in Alassio than in his native Malvern. Incidentally, Alassio is in the North of Italy not the South. The music Elgar composed when the weather improved is not a full symphony, but a bright and colourful piece which comprises a number of episodes, some pastoral and some tempestuous. It’s richly orchestrated and served as an enjoyable warm-up for the musicians (and audience). Conductor Martyn Brabbins, by the way, was sporting an impressive beard which lent him extra gravitas on the podium.

The second item on the agenda was the Double Concerto for Violin and Cello by Frederick Delius, which provided an interesting contrast, from an overture that’s too long for an overture to a concerto that’s too short – at around 20 minutes in duration – to be a concerto. The two principals here were Tasmin Little (violin) and Paul Watkins (cello), both of whom played very well but the sound balance made the cello a little hard to hear over the rest of the orchestra, despite the fact the orchestra was pared down a little for this piece, with some of the strings and the percussion that was heavily used in the Elgar being removed. This work, which is rather rhapsodic in form, certainly has its moments of beauty – especially when the violin and cello combine – but overall I found it hard to discern an overall structure and sense of development. Perhaps I’m being harsh, though, as talk in the bar during the interval that followed immediately was generally very enthusiastic about this piece. Tasmin Little also appeared in the lounge to sign CDs and talk to fans.

After the interval was the main event, William Walton‘s sumptuous Belshazzar’s Feast. This was originally commissioned by the BBC in 1929 who asked for a “small-scale choral work” which would be suitable for a radio broadcast. I’m not sure what part of “small-scale” Walton didn’t understand, but he produced a work that required orchestral and choral forces far too large to be accommodated in the original studio venue, so it wasn’t performed until 1931 at the Leeds Music Festival. To be fair to Walton it is a fairly short work – about 35 minutes long – but it packs a huge range of choral and orchestra textures. It’s of the form of a cantata based on words taken from Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon…”) and the Book of Daniel, divided into a series of episodes that run into each other. It tells the story of Babylonian king Belshazzar who defiles the holy vessels of the Jews (who are in captivity in Babylon) by using the vessels to toast the heathen gods. A ghostly apparition appears in the form of a human hand which writes on the wall `MENE, MENE, TEKEL UPHARSIN’ (which is to say ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting’). Belshazzar is killed that very night, and his kingdom falls to bits.

For this piece the Orchestra was back up to full strength, with two additional banks of brass instruments in the tiers above and to either side of the stage and the might St David’s Hall organ was also deployed. Behind the main body of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales were the massed ranks of the singers: the BBC National Chorus of Wales and members of the Bristol Choral Society and on stage was bass soloist Neal Davies. They combined to produce a truly exhilarating performance. I loved every minute and was deeply impressed by the variety and expressiveness of Walton’s score. The end of the concert was greeted with rapturous – and richly deserved – applause. I’ve never heard this piece live before, only on record, and I’m very glad to have been able to hear it done so well in such a great venue with such great singers and musicians.

And then I was out in the cold again, walking back to Pontcanna. The fog was even thicker after the concert than it was before and I found my usual path through Sophia Gardens completely enshrouded in a mist so dense I couldn’t see where I was going. I had to make a diversion onto Cathedral Road where there was at least some illumination. When I got home I realized I hadn’t had any dinner so had a cheese sandwich. Not exactly a feast, but at least I didn’t defile any sacred drinking vessels either…

P.S. The next concert I’ll be going to at St David’s Hall is the traditional seasonal performance of Handel’s Messiah..

Daphnis et Chloé at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2016 by telescoper

Taking a short break from today’s duties – which are substantial – I’ve just got time to mention that last night I went once again to a concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff. This time it was the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of conductor laureate Tadaaki Otaka, who were joined for the second half of the performance by the BBC National Chorus of Wales. The concert was broadcast live last night on BBC Radio 3, although I didn’t listen to it on the radio myself because I was there in person. In fact I only just got there in time because last night they switched on the Christmas lights in Cardiff city centre and I had to make my way through the crowds to get to St David’s Hall.

The programme began with an appetizer in the form Mozart’s, brief but dramatic overture to the opera Idomeneo which Mozart wrote when he was just 25. It’s interesting how much more attention one tends to pay to an overture when it’s detached from the main event it is supposed to precede. In fact you sometimes even find people talking during the overture at the Opera, which as far as I’m concerned is a crime of the most serious order. Anyway, the Idomeneo overture  is in a compact sonata form, which is something I’d never appreciated before despite having seen the Opera a number of times.

After that there was a memorable performance of  Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto with soloist Thomas Zehetmair. I’d never heard this piece before, and was captivated from the very opening in which the soloist enters alone without any orchestral preface or accompaniment. The piece consists of two sprightly and intense allegro movements either side of a more lyrical adagio. It’s a very virtuosic solo piece but also full of interesting melodies and innovative orchestration. I was sitting in the stalls directly in front of the cellos and basses who had to work phenomenally hard, sometimes doubling the melodic line of the much nimbler solo violin. Great stuff.

The interval was followed by a complete performance of the music to the ballet Daphnis et Chloé by Maurice Ravel. As is the case with Stravinsky’s Firebird (which I heard in St David’s Hall a few weeks ago) music from this ballet is often played in the form of a suite or, in the case of this ballet, two suites, but I have to say the whole is much greater than the sum of the suites. It’s a glorious (and very sensual) work, brilliantly orchestrated, full of vibrant colours and lush textures, and even more wonderful when accompanied by the wordless singing of the massed ranks of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The score lasts a full hour, but that time seemed to flash by in this performance which was extremely well received by a very appreciative audience.

Anyway, for the next month you can listen to the whole concert on the BBC iPlayer so feel free to add your comments below if you get the chance to hear it.

The only downside of the evening was that on the way out I bumped into disgraced former Conservative MP and current UKIP AM, Neil Hamilton, along with equally ghastly wife. So traumatised was I by that experience that I was forced to visit the Urban Tap House for a beer before walking home.

Ode to Joy

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on October 1, 2011 by telescoper

A very busy week for me ended with a very busy Friday including a postgraduate induction event followed by our annual postgaduate conference. It was actually a very enjoyable day with some really excellent talks by research students about their ongoing projects, but by the end of the afternoon I was definitely flagging.

Fortunately I’d planned a reward at the end of this week in the form of a concert at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC National Chorus of Wales with conductor Thierry Fischer. I bought a group of tickets for myself and some colleagues from work, hoping that it would prove an uplifting experience. We weren’t disappointed.

Before the interval (of which more anon) we heard On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams. Written as a response to the events of September 11th  2001, this is an unusual composition involving orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, and pre-recorded tape. Opinions about this piece are generally pretty divided and that also proved to be the case with the half-a-dozen of us who attended last night. All thought the orchestral music was very good indeed, but some found the recorded bits intrusive and the text, which includes phrases from missing-persons posters and memorials posted around Ground Zero to be a mixture of the banal and the mawkish. I wasn’t as negative about these aspects as some seem to have been, but at the same time I didn’t feel the pre-recorded segments actually added very much and they did sometimes make it difficult to hear the subtle textures in the orchestra. And as for the text being “banal”, that seems to me to be entirely the point. It’s the everdayness of loss that makes grief so overwhelming.

Anyway, I thought it was a fascinating  piece and it’s definitely the first time I’ve seen the violin section of an orchestra come on stage with two violins each. Some passages call for altered tunings, so they swapped instruments regularly throughout the performance. The orchestra played wonderfully well, I should say, and the performance was warmly received by the audience.

Then came the interval, during which the fire alarm went off and we had to evacuate the concert hall. Fortunately it was a sultry evening – we’re in the midst of an early autumn heatwave here –  and it wasn’t at all unpleasant to get a bit of fresh air while they figured out what had caused the alarm.

When we got back in it became obvious that quite a few people had left, possibly because they thought the performance wouldn’t resume. Those that didn’t return missed an absolute treat.

I’m not even going to attempt a description of  Beethoven’s  “Choral” Symphony No. 9 in D Minor. Suffice to say that it’s one of the pinnacles of human achievement, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Beethoven was profoundly deaf when it was written. It’s a masterpiece of such dimensions that words are completely unnecessary to describe it, even if one could find words that were appropriate in the first place.  Moreover, I think it’s a piece you really have to hear live for it to really live. Our seats were almost at the front of the stalls, very near the stage and close enough for me to to be able to feel the fortissimo passages through the soles of my feet. Perhaps that’s the only way Beethoven himself ever heard this piece?

And as for last night’s performance, what can I say? The first, Allegro, movement, an entire symphony in itself, found the orchestra at the very peak of its collective prowess. Their playing was passionate and vivid, yet tightly disciplined and the orchestra seemed to be pervaded by a sense that it was an absolute privilege to be playing an undisputed masterpiece. I was so carried away that at the end of that movement an involuntary tear fell from my eye.

I’ll just add one other observation about this piece, concerning the final movement, based around Beethoven’s setting of parts of Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy to which Beethoven himself added some material.  This is so famous that I suspect it’s the only part of the symphony that many people have heard. Hearing it in the context of the entire work, however, makes it all the more dramatic and inspirational. It’s not just that you have to wait so long for the choir (who have been sitting patiently behind the orchestra for three movements) to let rip, but also that you’ve experienced so much wonderful music by the time you get there that the final is virtually guaranteed to leave you completely overwhelmed.

Sincerest thanks to Thierry Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales for an absolutely unforgettable experience. Uplifting? Not half!

P.S. The performance was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on October 3rd 2011 in Afternoon on 3  and will presumably be on iPlayer for a week after that. Do listen to it if you get the chance. Even if only a small  fraction of the atmosphere inside St David’s Hall makes its way into the airwaves then it will still be worth a listen..