Archive for Ralph Vaughan Williams

Bax, Vaughan Williams & Potter at the NCH.

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I was once again at the National Concert Hall in Dublin for a concert by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, this time conducted by Kenneth Montgomery. I took the above picture about five minutes before the start of the concert and, although a few more people arrived before the music began, it was a very low attendance. I don’t think the hall was more than 20% full. I’m not sure why. Perhaps Storm Callum made it difficult for some to make the journey to Dublin? I was delayed a bit on the way there from Maynooth, but I’m glad I made it because it was a fine concert.

I always appreciate it when unfamiliar works are programmed alongside more standard repertoire, and last night provided a good example of that. One piece was an established favourite among concert-goers, another I have on CD but have never heard live, and one I had never heard before at all.

The opening piece was In Memoriam by Arnold Bax. Although considered by many to be an archetypal English composer, Bax had a strong affinity for Ireland and indeed lived here from 1911 until the outbreak of war in 1914. I’ve always felt Bax’s music was greatly influenced by Sibelius, but he was very interested in Celtic culture and that comes across in his In Memoriam, which is built around a very folk-like melody. The work was composed to honour Pádraig Pearse, one of the leaders of the 1916 uprising, who was subsequently executed by the British authorities, and was written in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion in 1916. It is a very fine piece, in my opinion, starting in a rather elegiac mood, but with passages that celebrate of Pearce’s life than mourn his death, and the ending is very moving, like a beautiful sunset.

There was then a short delay while various rearrangements were made on stage. Off went the wind instruments and percussion, and into the space vacated by their departure moved a subset of the string instruments, creating a second (smaller) string orchestra separated from the remaining musicians. In addition, the principals of the relevant sections arranged themselves to form a string quartet around the conductor’s podium. If you didn’t know before reading this what was about to be played, then that description will no doubt have led you to conclude that it must be the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is an evergreen concert piece, for good reason, and the string players of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra delivered a very fine account of it. I remarked on the fine playing of the string section after the last concert I attended at the NCH, and they did it again.

After the interval was a piece I had never heard before, the Sinfonia “De Profundis” by Belfast-born A.J. `Archie’ Potter, composed fifty years ago in 1968, and first performed in 1969 by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin. The title is a reference to Psalm 130, and some of the thematic material comes from liturgical music. In the composer’s own words:

As the title suggests, it is a musical account of one man’s own progress from despair over a particular circumstance in his life to spiritual recovery and (for the time being of course) triumph over the powers of darkness.

Although `a journey from darkness into light’ is a description that could apply to many symphonies (especially those of Beethoven), this work in five movements does not have a typically `symphonic’ structure in that it is based on variations on a theme drawn from a 16th century carol spread throughout the whole work rather than confined to one movement, alongside another element comprising a `tone row’. The juxtaposition of `traditional’ diatonic and `modernist’ serialist explorations generates tension which is only released at the very end, when it is released by the arrival of a new theme borrowed from the `Old 124th’.

That brief description of what is going on in this work doesn’t do justice at all to the impression it creates on the listener, which is of a richly varied set of textures sometimes mournful but sometimes boisterous, with dashes of robust humour thrown in for good measure. I’m not at all familiar with A.J. Potter, but I must hear more of his music. Based on this piece, he was both clever and expressive.

As a bonus we had an orchestral encore in the form of another piece by Archie Potter, much shorter and much lighter. Orchestral encores are rare in the UK, but seem to be less so here in Ireland.

After that I left in order to return to Maynooth. Appropriately enough, in the light of the piece by Bax, I took a train from Pearse station…

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Hymn for the Day

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , on October 31, 2013 by telescoper

This morning’s hymn is Sine Nomine, No. 641 from the English Hymnal, and is chosen in honour of those participating in today’s strike of some University staff.

Sinfonia Antarctica

Posted in History, Music with tags , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2012 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post while I eat my breakfast this morning about last night’s Scott Centenary Concert at St David’s Hall Cardiff. The concert was given by the City of London Sinfonia (conducted by Stephen Layton) and last night’s performance was actually the third date in a tour which takes them next to Cheltenham and then to the Cadogan Hall in London. I mentioned this concert in a post last week.

The main music for the evening was written by Vaughan Williams. The concert started with excerpts from his score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, interspersed with dramatic readings from Scott’s own diaries and letters, by actor Hugh Bonneville. Apparently Vaughan Williams found the subject matter of the film so compelling that he wrote a huge amount of music, most of it before even seeing the screenplay, and only a small part was actually used in the movie soundtrack. He later re-worked much of this material into a full symphony, The Sinfonia Antarctica, his 7th, which was performed in full after the interval. Musically speaking, therefore, the opening piece was really a taster for the full work, but the readings were deeply moving.

Scott kept full diaries all the way from the beginning to the end of the expedition so they describe the journey in remarkable detail, and with no little poignancy. The initial optimism gradually tempered turned to crushing disappointment when they discovered that Amundsen had beaten them to the South Pole. When they turned  home to try to reach safety before the Antarctic winter closed in around them, Scott’s diary asks for the first time “I wonder if we’ll make it.”  Passages describing the awful death of Petty Officer Evans and Captain Oates’ noble sell-sacrifice were included, and the last terrible days when, without food or fuel, the three remaining companions were entombed in their tent by a raging blizzard, were depicted by Scott’s increasingly fragmentary and heartbreaking notes. One can’t really imagine the depth of their suffering, of course, but the desolation of their last hours is obvious. Their bodies were not found until 8 months later.

Before the interval we heard a new commission, Seventy Degrees Below Zero, by Cecilia McDowell, featuring tenor Robert Murray. This was an orchestral setting of various parts of the scientific record of Scott’s Last Expedition. I have to say I didn’t really like the piece: the vocal lines lacked interest and the orchestral music lacked any real sense of variation or development. Robert Murray struggled to project, his rather thin tenor voice not really suited to the music.

After the interval we had a complete performance of the Sinfonia Antarctica. Although I enjoyed it very much, I’m still not sure how well this hangs together as a symphony. There’s no doubt, however,  that it contains a number of strokes of genius. The opening theme, heard at various points later on in the piece, manages to conjure up  the Antarctic landscape – not only the snow and ice but also its singular desert-like aridity – as well as a deep sense of tragedy. The second movement featuring soprano Katherine Watson and women’s voices from the Bath Camerata and Wells Cathedral School Chamber Choir in wordless singing produced a wonderful unearthly atmosphere. Later on, there’s a passage featuring an organ which gave me the chance to  hear he magnificent organ at St David’s Hall for the first time.

Projected above the orchestra throughout the performance were still photographs actually taken during the expedition. Some of these – like the one shown above – were stunning, but after a while I found them a bit of a distraction from the music.

Overall, an interesting concert rather than a brilliant one, which was well received by the (relatively small) audience at St David’s.

For all the Saints who from their Labours Rest

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , on November 30, 2011 by telescoper

This morning’s hymn is Sine Nomine, No. 641 from the English Hymnal, and is chosen in honour of all those participating in today’s public sector pension strikes.

Sine Nomine

Posted in Politics with tags , , on March 24, 2011 by telescoper

This morning’s hymn is No. 641 from the English Hymnal, and is chosen in honour of all those participating in today’s strike by the University and College Union.


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