Archive for BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Debussy, Mozart and Messiaen at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on March 25, 2018 by telescoper

The view from Tier 2 before the concert

After work (and a pint or two) on Friday evening I headed to St David’s Hall for a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 so you can listen to it on the iPlayer for a month.

Two of the four pieces on the programme were by Claude Debussy (abovel, to mark the centenary of his death which was 100 years ago today (on 25th March 1918).

The concert opened with Debussy’s Nocturnes and ended with La Mer , both works consisting of three movements for a large orchestra and showing the vivid chromaticism and lush orchestration that typifies so many of his compositions. The last movement of Nocturnes includes some wordless singing, which was performed beautifully by female singers from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

The second piece was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat Major K. 595, with soloist Steven Osborne. This, Mozart’s last piano concerto, is a nice piece, well played by both pianist and (pared-down) orchestra but I felt it was a rather incongruous choice for this programme. It was probably chosen because it is in some sense a valedictory piece, but all it did for me in this concert was emphasize how much the harmonic vocabulary of music expanded between Mozart and Debussy, and left me feeling that the Mozart piece was rather trite in comparison.

After the wine break we heard a piece that was completely new to me, Les Offrandes Oubliées by Olivier Messiaen, a wonderfully expressive piece with wildly contrasting moods, clearly influenced by Debussy but with a distinctive voice all its own. Messiaen is one composer I definitely wish I knew more about.

After the superb La Mer which ended the published programme, something very unusual happened for a classical concert in the UK: there was an encore by the orchestra in the form of a dance by Debussy orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

All in all, a very enjoyable evening and a fitting tribute to Claude Debussy, a composer who was both modernist and impressionist and whose influence on the development of music is incalculable.

Symphonie Fantastique

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2017 by telescoper

After a busy weekend I’m gradually trying to catch up on last week’s happenings. One thing I haven’t had time to mention yet is that on Thursday night I went to a concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff that featured the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of Xian Zhang. The orchestra repeated the programme the following day (Friday) at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, so you can listen to it it for the next month on the BBC iPlayer.

The main item on the menu was the Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. I have to confess that I’ve been a bit prejudiced about this piece since I was at school. I had a music teacher who adored Berlioz and wouldn’t shut up about him, basically telling us that he was the best composer ever. I didn’t buy it then, and despite a very fine performance on Thursday, I still don’t buy it now. It’s n0t that Berlioz is short of musical ideas or technical accomplishment: there are some memorable passages in this Symphonie, including the dance-like theme of the second movement, and the  “march to the scaffold” in the fourth movement.  I’m not at all averse to big loud symphonic works, either, as regular readers of this blog will know. My difficulty is that it’s all a bit too obvious. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is a fine orchestra and I enjoyed their playing enormously. I particularly appreciated seeing the  percussion section get a good workout! I was also impressed by the conducting of Xian Zhang who gave a sense of shape where previously I’d heard only bombast. It’s the composition that’s the problem for me, though. Berlioz lays it on with a shovel, but I still think this is a rather superficial piece.

Before the Berlioz, in the first half, were two much more interesting pieces. The first, a piece called Internet Symphony No. 1 “Eroica” by Tan Dun is less than five minutes long is a hugely entertaining blend of Eastern and Western musical influences.

After that appetizer we had a dazzling performance of the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninov with soloist Stephen Hough at the piano. This piece comprises a set of 24 variations on a them from one of Paganini’s caprices for solo violin.

Incidentally, the “theme by Paganini” used as the basis of this piece is the same one that was used for the musical introduction to the TV programme “South Bank Show“, although I think quite a lot of people know that.

The Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini is piece full of contrasts: sometimes pyrotechnical, sometimes lyrical. My favourite section is the 18th variation, in which a lovely romantic melody emerges and is picked up by the whole orchestra in a manner that’s very characteristic of Rachmaninov. It gets me every time, but then I am a terrible softy. You can hear this played by Stephen Hough at the Proms in 2013 here (about 20:20 into the video). Incidentally, this tune is just an inversion of the theme transposed into a different  key and slowed down.

The Rachmaninov alone was worth the cost of the ticket! It’s such a shame that he wrote so little music after emigrating from Russia to the United States in 1917. He made a living doing concert tours after that, and had little time to compose. Thank goodness he found time to write this, though!

We also had an encore by Stephen Hough that provided yet another contrast. Debussy’s Clair de Lune is a very familiar piece, but it provided an appropriately light and reflective epilogue to the first half.

I will persevere with Berlioz, I suppose, like I do with Brahms, but I think I’m going to be hard to convince. If anyone can suggest a piece by Hector Berlioz that they think will change my mind, please feel free to suggest it via the comments box!

 

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!

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.

The Firebird (and more) at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on October 18, 2016 by telescoper

Just a quick note to catch up on concert-going activities from last week, as for various reasons I had to skip a few days of blogging…

Last Thursday night (13th October) I was lucky enough to attend a tremendous concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff featuring the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thomas Søndergård at the start of their 2016/7 season. The main item on the bill was the complete score for Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. This is a thrillingly piece, involving a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, including some positioned away from the rest of the orchestra. In a performance of the ballet the main orchestra would be in the pit, not on the stage, and the musicians offstage in the concert would be onstage with the dancers. If you see what I mean.

The orchestration of The Firebird is a tour de force: intricate but vividly coloured, full of excitement and colour and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales played it with great passion and aplomb. A really brilliant performance.

The Firebird filled the second half of the programme. In the first half we heard three pieces by French composers: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy; the three songs from Shéhérazade by Maurice Ravel, sung by the inestimable Sarah Connolly; and  the Flute Concerto by Jacques Ibert played by Emily Beynon. The first two pieces are fairly standard in the concert repertoire, but the last one was completely new to me. The last piece is very fine indeed, consisting of two dazzlingly virtuosic faster movements (Allegro and Allegro Scherzando) either side of a lyrical Andante. The orchestra was somewhat pared down for this part of the concert, but it’s nevertheless a piece of substantial weight and harmonic complexity. Hats off to Emily Beynon and the BBC NOW for a wonderful introduction to this work.

What a rich and varied programme for a single concert, all wonderfully played. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest of the season!

 

 

Mozart and Strauss, and the End of Term

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on June 16, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday (Friday 15th June) was officially the last day of teaching term at Cardiff University. I think most of our students toddled off  some time ago when their last exams were finished,  so for us on the staff side the teaching term has fizzled out gradually rather than go out with a bang. Yesterday I met with a couple of next year’s project students to give them some background reading to do over the summer and that was that for another year of undergraduate teaching.

There was something of an “end-of-term” feeling too to last night’s concert at St David’s Hall, which was also broadcast live on BBC Radio 3; you can listen to it yourself by clicking on that second link. This was not only the last concert of the 2011/12 season by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, but also  last concert at St David’s Hall to be conducted by Thierry Fischer, who has been principal conductor for the BBC NOW for the past six years. Next year Thomas Søndergård will take over.The concert turned out to be a fitting finale to the season and a fine farewell to Thierry Fischer.

The first item on the agenda was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 played by none other than the wonderful Angela Hewitt.  I wasn’t all that familiar with this piece beforehand, and was surprised to see such a large orchestra on stage before the start. Apparently  this work was the first time Mozart had used clarinets in a piano concerto, and the larger force than I’d normally have associated with a Mozart piece of this type gave the performance a much more opulent sound than I’d expected. It’s an interesting work, with a particularly fine Andante second movement which is both sombre and expansive sandwiched between two quicksilver Allegro movements, the last being a kind of rondo. Angela Hewitt played it with crisp elegance and perfect articulation. Some people find her playing a bit fussy and punctilious, and indeed there were times when I thought the performance could have had a bit more fire in it, but for my part it was a treat to get the chance to see a great artist in the flesh; she has an engaging presence on stage too, clearly enjoying the performance, and smiling from time to time in appreciation at the orchestral playing. We even got a nice little solo encore, which is quite unusual for a live broadcast from St David’s.

Then there was an interval so we could all check the football score, and guzzle a quick glass of overpriced wine before returning to hear the Alpine SymphonyOp. 64 by Richard Strauss. If the orchestra for Part 1 had been large by Mozartian standards, then this one was immense! Well over a hundred musicians, with a huge brass section (supplemented by many more standing off-stage and just visible to me through an open door), harps, percussion (including cow bells and a wind machine), and some unusual instruments including a Heckelphone (what the heck?…). Oh, and the fine organ in St David’s Hall got a full workout too.

Strictly speaking, this is not actually a symphony; it’s more of a tone poem. But Strauss was rather good at them and this one is a wonderful evocation of a day’s journey in the Bavarian Alps, from a resplendent dawn to a tranquil sunset, with summits to be scaled, thunderstorms to be endured, glaciers to be traversed, and so on. It’s certainly a very vivid piece of programmatic music.

As you might have inferred from huge band gathered on stage, this is a work that gets very loud, especially when the organist literally pulls out all the stops. What was especially fine about the performance was that, although the musicians of BBC NOW weren’t afraid to give it some welly whenever it was called for, their playing never became wild or ragged. I don’t know what it sounded like on the radio, but it was a thrilling experience to be in the hall.  I lost count of the number of towering crescendo passages, and just let the waves of wonderful noise wash over me. At times I could feel it through my feet too.

There were cheers at the end, and a standing ovation for Thierry Fischer not only for this performance but for his service to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.  And that brought the term and the season to a close; both start again in late September 2012. There are some cracking concerts in store in the next season in St David’s Hall.