Archive for Johannes Brahms

Culture Night (and Afternoon)

Posted in Art, Biographical, History, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2019 by telescoper

I thought I’d do a quick round-up of my little trip around cultural and historic Dublin yesterday after being stood down from duty at the Higher Options fair at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS). I have to say it was wonderful to see so many people out and about in the City’s beautiful parks and public spaces enjoying the September sunshine as I walked around.

The RDS is in the Ballsbridge area in of Dublin, to the East of the City. My route into town from there took me along Northumberland Road, where I took this picture outside Number 25:

A little further along I went across Mount Street Bridge, passing this memorial.

If you want to know more about the significance of these memorials to the events of the Easter Rising in 1916, see my post here.

My main intention during my afternoon off was to visit the National Gallery of Ireland which is situated on one side of Merrion Square. I have to say that this was even better than I’d expected, and I’m sure to visit again many times in the future. The ground floor is dominated by the work of Irish artists from about 1660 to 1965, together with European Art from 1835 to 1965. You will find works by Monet and Picasso in this section, which has much to savour. Among the Irish artists represented in this show is Jack B. Yeats (brother of poet W.B. Yeats), an extremely interesting artist in his own right.

The highlights for me, however, were found on the 3rd floor which displays examples of European Art from the early Renaissance (c. 1300) to the Enlightenment. One of the interesting things about this collection is that it is arranged thematically rather than by artist (or nationality thereof). There is, for example, an entire room of paintings inspired and influenced by Caravaggio, all of them with an intensely dramatic use of light and shadow. The gallery is worth it just for that room, but there are also fascinating juxtapositions of religious paintings from the renaissance with icons and altarpieces from the Byzantine and Russian orthodox traditions from the same period.

Elsewhere in the collection there are notable works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Perugino as well as a number of British works by, for example, Gainsborough and Reynolds.

The work that really stopped me in my tracks, however, was this:

This is St Francis Receiving The Stigmata by El Greco. I knew about this painting but had no idea it was in Dublin. Seeing it close up is a revelation: the swirling brushstrokes give it an extraordinary texture that makes it hard to bring the image completely into focus. The hypnotic feel that results is a brilliant depiction of a man undergoing a kind of ecstatic vision. This work has an unbelievably powerful effect on the viewer (or at least on this one).

After a break for a sit down and a cup of coffee I visited the Natural History Museum (which is practically next door to the National Gallery). This is a surprisingly old-fashioned affair, with hundreds of stuffed animals and birds crammed into two large rooms:

It reminded me a lot of visits to the Hancock Museum in Newcastle when I was a kid. It’s interesting, but more than a little creepy and would make an excellent setting for a horror story!

After adjourning to a pub for a pint of Guinness the final stop of the day was the National Concert Hall for yesterday’s Culture Night concert. On the way there I saw a big queue of people trying to get into one of the many free events around Dublin. It turns out this Culture Night was the grand opening of the Museum of Literature Ireland, which is situated in Newman House on the South Side of St Stephen’s Green. There’s another one to put on my list of places to visit.

The Culture Night concert was by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The opening piece, Kinah, was a composition by the conductor himself and is a sort of memorial to his parents, both of whom were classical musicians, one a violinist and the other a cellist, and together they formed half of the famous Hollywood String Quartet. It was a new piece for me, and I found it very moving indeed. After that there was a bit of reorganization on stage to make way for the Steinway on which the brilliant Xiayin Wang played the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber, which consists of two fast and furious movements either side of a beautifully lyrical slower movement. This must be a ferociously difficult piece to play – especially the last movement which is at a breakneck pace in 5/8 time – requiring not only dexterity but physical strength. It was a wonderful performance by Xiayin Wang, who rounded off the first half with an encore in the form of a transcription of George Gershwin’s song The Man I Love.

After the wine break interval came the main course in the form of the Symphony No. 4 in E Minor by Johannes Brahms. This is of course a much more familiar work than the previous two, but I really like concerts that mix unfamiliar material with the standard concert repertoire. It also gave me the chance to persevere with Brahms as my friends keep telling me to. It’s not that I don’t like Brahms, it’s just that I don’t find that he moves me as much as many other composers and so many people rave about him that I think I must be missing something. The 4th Symphony is a very fine work, and was performed beautifully last night under the direction of Leonard Slatkin (conducting, incidentally, without a score), but I couldn’t stop myself thinking how much like Beethoven it sounds. That’s not meant to be derogatory, by the way.

But you don’t need to take my word for it. You can listen to (and watch) the whole concert here:

Anyway, after the applause had died down I headed out towards Pearse Station for the train back to Maynooth. I was a bit tired after a very full day and wanted to get the 10.08 train so I didn’t stop to watch any of the numerous musical and artistic events I passed on the way, including an intriguing installation involving images projected onto one of the buildings to the side of St Stephen’s Green. I made it to the station with 5 minutes to spare and discovered that, because it was Culture Night, the train home was free!

Never mind the Brahms, hear the Adams.

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2011 by telescoper

People keep telling me how wonderful the music of Johannes Brahms is and, although he’s never been a favourite of mine, I’ve always been willing to accept that this was basically down to my ignorance and that I should persevere.

Yesterday I had an opportunity to have another go at Brahms, in the form of a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at St David’s Hall which comprised two pieces completely new to me, one of which was Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, featuring Lars Vogt. Not knowing anything about the piece beforehand, other than that quite a few people I know told me it was brilliant, I went with as few preconceptions as possible.

This is a much larger work than the typical piano concerto.  Spread over four meaty movements rather than the more usual three, it lasts about 45 minutes and in places it feels more like a symphony which happens to a have a piano part than a piano concerto per se. I think I was expecting something more overtly virtuosic too, and this work isn’t really like that, although it must be hard to play because it requires quite a lot of muscle from time to time. There are passages of great beauty, especially in the elegaic slow (3rd) movement, wherein there is a beautiful singing cello part, and in the swelling orchestral climaxes of the first two movements. The intricate and very artful last movement involves so many different themes coming in an playing off against each other that it’s difficult to keep track.

Conducted by Thierry Fischer, the Orchestra was a bit slow to get into the swing of it and I felt some of the playing early on was a bit flat where it is clearly supposed to be full of heroic grandeur. Perhaps this was partly because of the disappointing attendance – St David’s Hall couldn’t have been half full despite a price of only £20 for stalls seats.

Apart from the slightly disappointing opening, I enjoyed this first part of the concert. A lot, in fact. I certainly found the music impressive in its craftsmanship and vision. But if you ask me if it moved me, I’d have to say no. It left me a bit cold, I’m afraid. I guess Brahms doesn’t really speak my language. On the other hand, this is a piece which probably should be heard more than once to appreciate it fully, as it is rather a lot to take in one go. I’m keen to get a good recording of it so I can do that at home. I’d welcome recommendations through the comments box, in fact, as my personal jury is still out as far as Brahms is concerned.

The second half of the concert was quite a different matter. John Adams wrote  Harmonielehre in 1985, about a hundred years after Brahms composed his second Piano Concerto. The title is taken from a book on musical composition by Arnold Schoenberg. The link between this and the Brahms work is not as tenuous as you might imagine, however, as Schoenberg started his compositional career writing in a late romantic style not so far removed from Brahms. It was only later that he turned to atonalism and, eventually, serialism.

Although its harmonic structure is  complex, and some of the structures Adams uses are similar to those you might find in Schoenberg, at least relatively early on while he was still experimenting,  Harmonielehre is  not really an atonal work. In each sequence the music does hover around a  tonal centre although it times the music strains against its own centre of gravity.

And although he deploys some devices associated with minimalism – insistent, percussive repetition, recurrent motifs, a quasi-static chordal framework and very gradual development and transformation – this isn’t really a minimalist work either.

It’s the fact that it’s so hard to categorize this work that makes it so fascinating and exciting. Other passages seem to echo other composers, especially Gustav Mahler (who died in 1911, the same year that Schoenberg wrote the book Harmonielehre). It’s as if Adams decided to take the end of the romantic period as a starting point but map out a very different route from there to that pioneered by Schoenberg.

If all this sounds very academic then I’m doing a great disservice to the piece. It’s actually a complete blast to listen to, from start to finish. It begins in exhilirating fashion with a thunderous breakneck sequence like a rollercoaster ride that eventually dissolves into a lyrical string theme. The second movement is where the strong echoes of Mahler can be found – there’s also a passage where a solo trumpet plays a lonely theme over disjointed chords which reminded me greatly of Miles Davies and Gil Evans. The last movement is in perfect contrast – fully of energy and exuberance, it ends with thrilling waves of sound crashing and reforming and crashing again. Nothing short of ecstatic.

I went to this concert almost completely preoccupied with the question of whether I would “get” Brahms’ Piano Concerto, but after the finale of Harmonielehre I had almost forgotten Brahms entirely. You could easily tell which piece the musicians enjoyed most too, as there were broad grins and mutual applause all across the stage as they took their bows. This was especially true of the percussionists, who were outnumbered by their instruments – bells, marimbas, xylophones, drums, you name it, so had to run backwards and forwards whenever needed to man the barricades.

The audience loved it too. Bravo.

P.S. The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a future date.


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