Archive for St David’s Hall Cardiff

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!



Gershwin, Adams & Rachmaninov

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday (Friday) being the last day of (relative) freedom before teaching resumes on Monday I took the opportunity to go to a concert by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera at the splendid St David’s Hall in Cardiff. I had been looking forward to it for some time, as the programme featured two favourite pieces of mine, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and John Adams’ The Chairman Dances (A Foxtrot for Orchestra), plus one longer piece that I’ve never heard live before, Symphony No. 2 (in E minor) by Sergei Rachmaninov.

There was a good crowd in St David’s last night, not surprisingly given the popularity of the pieces being performed. Conductor for the evening was Frédéric Chaslin, who led the orchestra from the piano during the opening number, Rhapsody in Blue. This is a very famous piece, and is played so often that it is in danger of becoming a bit of a cliché, especially when classical orchestras try too hard to sound like jazz musician; the piece was originally written for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. A case in point is the opening clarinet solo, which is often played like a ham-fisted parody. Not last night, though. Principal clarinettist of WNO Leslie Craven gave a very characterful rendition of the notoriously tricky opening, which seemed to inspire the orchestra into an excellent all-round performance. I particularly enjoyed seeing the cello section slapping the strings of their instruments much as a jazz-era double-bass player would.

Chaslin gave an idiosyncratic account of the piano part, to the extent that in the final solo passage before the finale he departed from the script entirely and interpolated an improvised section all of his own. Not everyone in the audience approved – there were a few tuts behind me – but it’s a piece undoubtedly inspired by jazz, so I don’t see anything wrong with doing this. I thought his ad-libbing was charming, and very witty. What I wasn’t so happy about were the changes in tempo, which were too exaggerated. I suppose conducting from the piano means you can do whatever you want, but I think he took the rubato too far. Some sections rely on strict rhythm for their sense of urgency, and I felt he got bogged down a bit in places. Still, on balance, it was very refreshing to hear an orchestra trying to do something different. Nothing hackneyed about last night’s performance, that’s for sure.

Next one up was The Chairman Dances by John Adams. This isn’t actually in the opera Nixon in China, which is what a lot of people seem to think. It was composed at the same time, but cut out and developed as a standalone concert piece. I posted a recording of this yesterday, so won’t say too much today, except that I thoroughly enjoyed my first live experience of this work. So did the orchestra by the look of it! It’s a hugely entertaining piece and had many in the audience tapping their feet along with it. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t have minded getting up and dancing along myself..

Special mention has to go the percussion section of the orchestra for doing such an excellent job. The four xylophones were  a delight to listen to, and the drums, temple blocks, triangles and assorted ironmongery coped brilliantly with the intricate polyrhythms.

Then it was the interval, and a glass of wine before returing to savour the main piece of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. It’s a remarkable work because it’s not only a “proper” symphony in its construction and development but also the best part of an hour of one glorious melody after another. Rachmaninov’s music is not really very much like Mozart, but they certainly had a similar ear for the Big Tune! I particularly loved the third movement (Adagio), but I thought it was a magnificent performance throughout, not least because you could see how much both conductor and orchestra were enjoying themselves.

The end of the concert was met with rapturous applause from the (normally rather reticent) St Davids audience. Now I have to find the best recording I can of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony so I can enjoy it again. Any suggestions?