Archive for Claude Debussy

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.

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The Hallé at St David’s

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , , on November 2, 2017 by telescoper

Last night, as part of an ongoing effort to enjoy as much culture as I can while I still have the chance, I went to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a concert of music by Ravel, Debussy and Mussorgsky given by the Hallé Orchestra under the direction of Sir Mark Elder. It was a wonderful programme of music, performed with all the colour and verve and professionalism you’d expect from the Hallé.

First up we had the Rapsodie Espagnole, one of Ravel’s first compositions for the full orchestra (although in the original version was for two pianos, he orchestrated it a year after that version was published). For a piece of only about 15 minutes duration its four movements are full of changes of mood, tempo and tonality, which makes it a great piece to warm up both orchestra and audience.

Following that, we had the gorgeous Première Rhapsodie for orchestra and clarinet soloist by Claude Debussy. Written just a couple of years after the Ravel, and inhabiting a similarly impressionistic sound world, this was originally as a test piece for clarinettists at the Paris Conservatoire. The solo part was played with great agility and feeling by young Spanish musician Sergio Castello López. I’d never noticed before how similar the way the clarinet ends this piece is to the opening statement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, written about 14 years later…

And then it was time for Ravel’s little inspiration, Boléro, which is easily his most famous composition despite the fact that, as Ravel himself put it, `it has no music in it’. What he meant by that is that it doesn’t have any variation or thematic development or invention, but was written deliberately as an experiment to see how far he could get in writing a work that was entirely based on rhythm and repetition. The result was a smash hit and earned him a very great deal of money, but he grew to resent the fact that it was so much more popular than the other works he himself thought were much better. I know some people who hate this piece, but I think it’s great fun and always enjoy hearing it. Last night was no exception.

The composition of Boléro is so simple that even a non-musician like me can play it. It’s basically written in a slow 3/4 time signature on which is superimposed the following figure:

The second part is basically a repeat of the first, with the last two eighth notes replaced with triplet. The whole pattern consists of 24 notes. I once tried to count how many times it is repeated in a performance of Boléro, but gave up when I got to 100. I think it must be over 200 times.  This figure is introduced first on a single snare drum, which carries on playing it for the duration, i.e. for about 15 minutes in total. As the piece develops the same pattern is picked up by various other instruments, either alone in combination. A second snare drum joins in too. The key to the piece is to keep this all very strictly in tempo, as the piece gradually gets louder.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my Father was a (jazz) drummer. I remember once borrowing his snare drum and attempting to play along with a recording of Boléro. The pattern shown above is not that hard to play in itself, but it’s not as easy as you probably think to keep in tempo as you play it louder and louder. At the start it’s fine: you begin by tapping the sticks on the skin of the drum very close to the rim. To increase the volume you gradually move the point of impact closer to the centre of the drum, which naturally makes it louder. However, to get louder still you have to increase the distance the sticks move, and that makes it tougher to keep to tempo. Playing along at home is one thing, but playing the percussionist playing this in an orchestra must leave the drummer feeling very exposed. One mistake, any speeding up or slowing down, and the whole performance will be ruined.  Percussionists very often have little to do for long passages in an orchestral work, but this takes it to the opposite extreme. It requires constant concentration, but no variation or embellishment is allowed.  I suppose professional musicians just get into the zone and don’t think about the possibility of screwing up. Last night, Principal Percussionist David Hext looked as relaxed as anyone I’ve ever seen starting this piece and seemed even to be enjoying it too, thoroughly deserving the warm applause he got at the end of the performance.

The bolero rhythm is just one element of the composition, of course. There is a melody, in two parts. The first simple and catchy, the second bluesier and a bit syncopated. Each part is played twice, passed around the instruments of the orchestra, first individually and then in combinations. Sometimes the melodic line is doubled, but there are no complicated harmonies and the piece stays in C major throughout, apart from a sudden change of key near the very end. The second part of the melody allows the musicians to release their inner jazz a bit, playing behind or across the beat to generate the feeling that the tune is trying to escape the confines of the incessant rhythm. As is the case in jazz, this sense of tension only works if the basic rhythm is kept strictly in tempo as the crescendo builds

The third element of the composition is the simplest of all, but I feel that it is very important in determining whether a performance of Boléro really rocks. That is a rhythmic pulse based on the three beats of the underlying 3/4. When they’re not playing the melody or shadowing the bolero pattern, the orchestra play this figure and it ends up being boomed out by the timpani in tremendous style but also as the piece progresses the stress shifts between the three beats as different instruments contribute.

I know it’s a familiar piece but I really enjoyed last night’s performance. I’ll also reiterate that as well as making a great sound, a full symphony orchestra playing during a piece like this is a tremendous thing to watch, especially with the percussion section giving it some good old-fashioned welly.

Anyway, after the ensuing wine break interval we resumed with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (as orchestrated by that man Maurice Ravel).  I remember studying this in music lessons at school,as it was one of the teacher’s approved works. He never told us, however, that the `pictures’ concerned were not large-scale canvases but tiny drawings and design sketches done by one Victor Hartmann, whose sudden death led to the exhibition in question but also affected his friend Mussorgsky very deeply and inspired him to make a musical tribute based on the artwork displayed therein. Mussorgsky thus wrote the piano version which was then subsequently orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

This is another extremely popular piece, also for good reason. It’s a set of ten movements linked by a `Promenade’ theme that represents the viewer walking around the exhibition (in different moods determined by the pictures). It ends with the most famous section, the magnificent Great Gate of Kiev which provided a suitable finale to a most enjoyable and varied evening of music.

Pelléas et Mélisande at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on June 8, 2015 by telescoper

Having had a very busy working birthday it was nice to take off to Cardiff for the weekend for a delayed treat. For me the cultural event of the weekend in the Welsh capital was neither One Direction nor the Manic Street Preachers, both which bands were playing there that weekend. It wasn’t even the Ladyboys of Bangkok, which I would definitely have preferred to either of the former acts. No, it was an evening at the Wales Millennium Centre for a new production of Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy.

This was an opera that was quite new to me, though I did know that the previous production of this work by Welsh National Opera was back in 1992 and the conductor was none other than Pierre Boulez. There is a famous recording of the piece on Deutsche Grammaphon, so the bar was set rather high for the new production. I don’t often agree with opera reviews so don’t usually read them before I go in case they put me off, but I did read the review in the Guardian of the opening night (May 31st) performance of this one as I was sent it by a friend. As it turns out there’s little I can add to George Hall’s review. It was absolutely magnificent.

The plot of Pelléas et Mélisande is, on one level, fairly simple. Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. She becomes his wife and goes to live with him in the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. After a while, though, Mélisande gets the hots for Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas and he reciprocates her feelings. Eventually Golaud starts to suspect that there’s something going and goes out of his way to find out how far the relationship has developed. He even gets his own child, Yniold, to spy on the couple. Since it’s all getting a bit weird, Pelléas decides to leave the castle but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time before he departs. Golaud gatecrashes the meeting and kills Pelléas in a jealous rage. Mélisande eventually dies too, but not until it is revealed that she has given birth to a daughter. Golaud never really finds out “the truth”, i.e. whether Pelléas and Mélisande ever consummated their love for each other.

But of course the plot tells only part of the story. This opera is based on the symbolist play of the same title by Maurice Maeterlinck. It’s an essential component of the symbolist manifesto that art should try to represent absolute truths that can only be expressed indirectly. Consequently very little in Pelléas et Mélisande is quite what it seems on the surface. The characters are enigmatic, especially Mélisande, and the boundary between reality and imagination is often blurred to such an extent that it takes on the quality of a dream.

That may all seem very confusing, but what binds it all together is Debussy’s music which was a revelation to me: all the sensuality I associate with his music was there, but it’s far darker and more mysterious than I’d imagined in my mind’s ear before the show. I have to say that the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Lothar Koenigs was absolutely magnificent. This was probably the best I’ve ever heard them play – and they’ve been excellent many times I’ve heard them. They obviously rose magnificently to the challenge set by Pierre Boulez. As for the singers, I don’t think there were any weak links at all but for me the pick of them was Rebecca Bottone in the “trouser role” of the young boy, Yniold. She sang and acted quite beautifully.

I didn’t realise straightaway, but the set was based on the same metallic structure used for the WNO production of Lulu, although in this case it wasn’t festooned with body parts, although there was a pool of water around it. Come to think of it, there is quite a lot in common between the characters of Lulu and Mélisande, which may be why they did it that way. Or it might just have been to save money. Anyway, cylindrical structure in the centre of the stage was used very cleverly indeed. At one time it represented a tower, at another a well, and even when it wasn’t being used it added a touch of steampunk to the look.

I also have to mention the staging of the final scene. Mélisande’s death was depicted most movingly, wrapped in black scarves by maidservants. At the end of the performance, the rest of the cast are escorted offstage by a representation of death there’s a beautiful image of rebirth as a hand rises defiantly from a white shroud.

Congratulations to Welsh National Opera on this production. I don’t think I’m often given to exaggeration but I’d call this one a triumph!