Archive for St David’s Hall

Messiah

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Music, Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 10, 2017 by telescoper

A performance of Handel‘s Messiah  at St David’s Hall  is always a pretty sure sign that the Christmas season is upon us, although the work itself was actually first performed at Easter and it’s by no means clear why it ended up almost universally regarded as a Christmas work . Messiah actually spans the entire biblical story of the Messiah, from Old Testament prophecy to the Nativity (Part 1) , the Passion of Christ (Part II, culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus, and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part III). The Nativity only features (briefly) in Part I, which is why it’s a little curious that Messiah is so strongly associated with Christmas.

Whatever the reason I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me – some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, over 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young. I went to a performance of Messiah (in the same venue) about this time last year but I relished the chance to hear it again last night.

As it turned out, the pairing of Cardiff Polyphonic Choir with baroque orchestra Réjouissance produced a very different performance from last year. The choir, numbering about sixty members, was in fine voice and the much smaller orchestra meant that the chorus really dominated the show.

Generally speaking I’m not a fan of period instrument performances. I can see the virtue of having a lighter instrumental touch in this case, and don’t have a problem with using forces of similar scale to those Handel would have used (e.g. two oboes, two cellos, one double bass, etc). I do not however understand why musicians insist on using outdated instruments. This is particularly true for the trumpets. Nobody will ever convince me that a baroque trumpet isn’t an inferior version of the modern instrument. All credit to the players for doing the best they could, but I really don’t see the point.

Anyway, that rant aside, I very much enjoyed the performance, especially the lovely singing by all four soloists and the choir, who were outstanding.
Now, I wonder where I’ll hear Messiah  next year?

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The Leningrad Symphony

Posted in History, Music with tags , , , , , , , on November 24, 2017 by telescoper

Last night I went with a group of friends and colleagues to St David’s Hall in Cardiff for concert that I had been looking forward to for some time, featuring the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the baton of WNO’s Music Director Tomáš Hanus in a programme of music by Mahler and Shostakovich. It turned out to be no disappointment!

Before the interval the Orchestra was joined by young mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught for the song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen by Gustav Mahler, featuring settings of four poems written by the composer (though clearly influenced by other sources). The four pieces are of contrasting mood, with the second being the most upbeat and the third the most despairing (as well as the most operatic in style) and they were written in response to an unrequited passion. I thought Tara Erraught sang very beautifully indeed, bring out the emotional depths of this piece. Unusually for Mahler, the orchestra for this work was not excessively large, and a good balance with the solo voice was achieved that allowed the subtleties of both vocal and orchestral parts to be enjoyed to full effect.

After the interval the stage was much fuller as the orchestral forces required for the second work were much larger. Symphony No. 7 by Dmitri Shostakovich (“Leningrad”) is a piece that evokes particular memories for me as I first heard it about thirty years ago on the radio while sitting in a car that was driving through a torrential downpour in the middle of the night from Kansas City to Lawrence. The repeating theme and snare drum figures in the 1st Movement that represent the remorseless advance of the invading army had even more powerful affect when accompanied by the incessant driving rain. I’ve heard this piece on recordings and live broadcasts on many occasions since then, but have never heard it performed live until last night.

Shostakovich in a fireman’s uniform in Leningrad, 1941

What can I say about this work? Well, not much that hasn’t been said before. It was dedicated to the city of Leningrad where the composer lived, until he was evacuated during the siege,  and where he wrote most of the 7th Symphony. He served as a volunteer fireman in Leningrad during the early part of the Second World War (see above), having been turned down for military service owing to his poor eyesight. Leningrad was besieged by German forces for almost 900 days, from September 1941 until January 1944, and it’s impossible not to see the work in this historical context.

 

Though the four movements have themes – `War’, `Memories’, `My Native Field’ and `Victory’ – this is not really a programmatic piece. It does, however, succeed in invoking the terror and brutality of armed conflict in a manner that is so compelling that it’s almost overpowering. Many symphonies have as a theme some kind of struggle between light and dark, or between good and evil, but it always seemed to me that this work is not so much like that as it is a representation of a struggle simply for survival against annihilation. Even the end of the intense fourth movement, when the music finally resolves into the key of C Major, suggesting a kind of `victory’, echoes of the previous conflict persist, suggesting (to me) that this particular battle does not intend in any kind of triumph but in a sense of grim endurance that is more resignation than resolution.

Musicologists tend not to like this Symphony and its reputation dwindled in the West in the post-War period. Maybe it is true that it has defects when thought of as an exercise in composition, but fortunately I am not a professional critic so I am quite content to say that for me, personally, this work has an emotional impact like few others and it is one of my favourites in the whole symphonic repertoire. Last night the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera delivered an impassioned performance that confirmed everything I felt about this work but with the added dimensions that you can only get from a live performance.

From the immaculately controlled crescendo representing the advancing invaders that erupts into a nightmarish depiction of the ensuing battle right through to the last movement with its ending in resolution tempered in bitterness and regret, this performance had me gripped. The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera played as if their lives depended on it, and the climactic moments were authentically terrifying and, it goes without saying, wonderfully loud. Many congratulations to Tomáš Hanus for inspiring his musicians to such heights. He looked absolutely drained at the end, as he acknowledged the applause of a very appreciative audience in St David’s Hall.

It’s a shame that there were so many empty seats. That often seems to be the case when the music is relatively `modern’. The Cardiff audience does seem to have rather conservative tastes in that way. On the way out of the Hall after the performance all the comments I heard – and those afterwards on Twitter – were overwhelmingly enthusiastic. I feel privileged to have been among those present at this thrilling event.

UPDATE: I didn’t realise it was being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is now available on iPlayer here for you to share the experience!

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!

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

Posted in Music with tags , , , on January 23, 2017 by telescoper

“Darkness, turbulence and an unmistakable undertone of violence” –  what could be a more fitting way to spend a Friday evening in January 2017 than listening to the epic Sixth Symphony by Gustav Mahler. So apt is this work for the times we’re living through that it was performed on Thursday evening by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3; you can catch that performance on the BBC iPlayer here. I’ve always preferred my music live rather than recorded, so I went to St David’s Hall on Friday to hear it performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of Thomas Søndergård. This was recorded live, and will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Friday 27th January, and available thereafter on iPlayer so you can compare the two versions if you want to.

Before the main course, we heard the excellent BBC National Chorus of Wales singing four motets by another late Romantic composer, Anton Bruckner. The pieces chosen were all settings of latin religous texts: Locus Iste, Os Justi, Christus Factus Est, and Ave Maria. These are beautiful works, and interesting because of the many references they include to earlier musical forms, especially in the Os Justi which is in the Lydian mode, harking back to what at the time it was written (1879) was an obsolete church scale.

These four works last only about 15 minutes in total. That explains why the bar staff weren’t taking interval orders before the concert started – there simply wouldn’t have been enough time to put the drinks out before the first half finished. Fortunately, my seat was near the door of the auditorium so I was able to make a quick escape and get my usual glass of wine at the bar before most of the audience.

And then the Mahler. What can I say? It’s another huge symphony, in four movements lasting about eighty minutes, requiring a huge orchestra including tubas, bass trombones, harps and varied percussion including cowbells, a celesta, and of course the famous hammer..

I mentioned earlier on that I much prefer live concerts. One of the things that I remember vividly from last Friday was the sight of the huge wooden mallet that is used to deliver the “hammer blows of fate” in the final movement, which loomed ominously on stage in front of the percussion section throughout the performance. When it was finally deployed it came down with such force that it buckled the wooden box underneath, but even when it wasn’t being used it had a powerful stage presence. That’s one kind of experience you’ll never get from a recording.

The first movement of this Symphony (Allegro energico) is a battle between a strident march theme and a passionate romantic melody, though the conflict is interrupted by a lengthy passage of remarkable peace and tranquility. In Mahler’s original version of this work, the Scherzo movement (in which the two main themes return in an even more agitated struggle) came second, but on reflection he swapped it with the Andante, which is measured and reflective but still with an undertone of foreboding. I’m not sure if anyone ever performs the original ordering anymore, but out of curiosity I’d like to hear it performed that way. The tonality and thematic content of the Scherzo mean it is more closely related to the Allegro than the Andante, which has led some to argue that, despite what Mahler thought, it should be played second. I don’t think that follows necessarily, but it would be interesting to hear how it works.

The final movement is vast, intense, emotionally draining and absolutely wonderful. The mood changes continually from terror to euphoria, from triumph to tragedy and from optimism to despair. Many people I know dismiss Mahler’s music as “angst-ridden”. I don’t think you can describe all his compositions like that, but it’s fair to say that this symphony is bleak and ultimately nihilistic in its despair. The hammer blows of fate (three in the original composition, with one later removed by Mahler) signal the end of hope, but the end is a whimper rather than a bang. The music subsides into nothingness,  its light fading  into the “Dark Night of the Soul”.

It’s no surpise that this is often called the “Tragic Symphony”, but however bleak the message may seem, it’s always uplifting to experience the “artistic conquest of the terrible”. If civilization is to survive in a world filled with suffering and arbitrary cruelty, then we have to come to terms with reality, not shy away from it. Mahler is one composer who isn’t afraid to tell it the way it is.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales was on top form for this concert – with outstanding work by the brass section in particular – and were marshalled with great vision and a mastery of detail  by Thomas Søndergård. I’m sure I’ll remember this performance for a very long time.

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”)

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2016 by telescoper

Last night I was at St David’s Hall in Cardiff yet again, this time for a piece that I’ve never heard in a live performance: Symphony No.2 (“Resurrection”) by Gustav Mahler. This is a colossal work, in five movements, that lasts about 90 minutes. The performance involved not only a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, but also two solo vocalists and a sizeable choir (although the choir does not make its entrance until the start of the long final movement, about an hour into the piece). In my seat before the concert I was particularly struck by the size of the brass section of the orchestra, but it turned out to be even larger than it looked as there were three trumpets and three French horns hidden offstage in the wings for most of the performance – they joined the rest of the orchestra onstage for the finale.

The musicians involved last night were the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, and the Welsh National Opera Community Choir, conducted by Tomáš Hanus who is the new music director of Welsh National Opera; this was his St David’s Hall debut. Soloists were soprano Rebecca Evans (who was born in Pontrhydyfen, near Neath, and is a local favourite at St David’s Hall) and mezzosoprano Karen Cargill (making her St David’s debut).

I don’t really have the words to describe what a stunning musical experience this was. I was gripped all the way through, from the relatively sombre but subtly expressive opening movement through the joyously dancing second movement that recalls happier times, the third which is based on a Jewish folk tune and which ends in a shattering climax Mahler described as “a shriek of despair”, the fourth movement is built around a setting of one of the songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, sung beautifully by Karen Cargill who has a lovely velvety voice very well suited to this piece, which seems more like a contralto part than a mezzo. The changing moods of the work are underlined by a tonality that shifts from minor to major and back again. All that was wonderfully performed, but it was in the climactic final movement – which lasts almost half an hour and is based on setting of a poem mostly written by Mahler himself, sung by Rebecca Evans, that what was already a very good concert turned into something truly remarkable.

On many occasions I’ve written about Welsh National Opera performances in the opera theatre and in the course of doing so I’ve very often mentioned the superb WNO Chorus. They weren’t called upon until the final movement, but as soon as they started to sing they lifted the concert to another level. At first they sang sitting down, which struck me as a little strange, but later on I realised that they were holding something in reserve for the final moments of the work. As the symphony moved inexorably towards its climax I noticed the offstage brass players coming onto the stage, the choir standing up, and the organist (who had been sitting patiently with nothing to for most of the performance) took his seat. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up in anticipation of a thrilling sound to come. I wasn’t disappointed. The final stages of this piece are sublime, jubilant, shattering, transcendent but, above all, magnificently, exquisitely loud! The WNO Chorus, responding in appropriate fashion to Mahler’s instruction to sing “”mit höchster Kraft” combined with the full force of the Orchestra and the St David’s Hall organ to create an overwhelming wall of radiant sound. Superb.

Mahler himself wrote of the final movement: “The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.” Well, who knows where genius comes from, but Mahler was undoubtedly a genius. People often stay that his compositions are miserable, angst-ridden and depressing. I don’t find that at all. It’s true that this, as well as Mahler’s other great works, takes you on an emotional journey that is at times a difficult one. There are passages that are filled with apprehension or even dread. But without darkness there is no light. The ending of the Resurrection Symphony is all the more triumphant because of what has come before.

The end of the performance was greeted with rapturous applause (and a well-deserved standing ovation). Congratulations to Tomáš Hanus, Karen Cargill, Rebecca Evans and all the musicians who took part in last night’s concert which is one that I’ll remember for a very long time.

P.S. You might be interested to know that St David’s Hall has been ranked in the world’s Top Ten Concert Halls in terms of sound quality. Those of us lucky enough to live in or near Cardiff are blessed to have such a great venue and so many superb great concerts right on our doorstep!

P.P.S. The concert got a five-star review in the Guardian.

The Hallé at St David’s

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2016 by telescoper

On Friday evening I kept up the concert-going, this time at St David’s Hall in Cardiff (which I haven’t been to for far too long). This was the first in the new season of concerto that will run until next summer.

On the bill on Friday was the Hallé Orchestra from Manchester (which is in the Midlands) under the direction of Sir Mark Elder.

The first half of the concert featured two works, the symphonic poem The Golden Spinning Wheel by Antonín Dvorak and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Benjamin Grosvenor.

The Dvorak piece is full of energy and  colour and nice tunes, but I found it rather long for what it has to say. Still, it was a good workout with which to get the Hallé warmed up.

I’m not a huge fan of Liszt. I often find his compositions showily virtuosic but rather shallow. Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto is actually much less like that than I expected. Consisting of a single movement lasting just over 20 minutes, it certainly has its pyrotechnical passages, but the piano also takes a back seat too. It’s a very enjoyable work, dazzlingly played at this concert by youthful star soloist Benjamin Grosvenor.

The second half was devoted to a very well-known piece, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (“The Pastoral”). It was, however, played in an unusual way that gave it a very fresh sound. Instead of having the basses and cellos in one block, Sir Mark Elder divided them into two groups either side of the stage, one with the first violins and one with the second violins. This simple device managed to create a much more solid  sound from the orchestra, as well as seeming to lower its centre of gravity, as it were. This heightened the impact of the excellent Hallé strings and gave the whole orchestra a rich sonority that perfectly suited the elemental power expressed by Beethoven’s composition.

A very enjoyable concert. Next one, in a couple of weeks, will be Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Resurrection”). I can’t wait for that!

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on October 18, 2012 by telescoper

Just a very quick post this morning about a concert I went to last night at St David’s Hall.

It was a last-minute decision to go and hear The Academy of St Martin in the Fields as I’ve been too busy these days to do much forward planning of non-work activities. However, when I saw that Beethoven’s First Symphony was on the menu I decided to go for it and even persuaded a couple of friends, Ed and Haley, to come along.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1  was the work that opened the concert, in fact, with music director  Joshua Bell conducting from a seated position and playing violin at the same time; at times the expansive gestures he made with his bow threatened to put someone’s eye out.

Perhaps the orchestra hadn’t really warmed up but I found the performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony rather flat. It’s a piece I really love – especially the last movement, which has all the ebullience of a young man making his way in a world that’s rich in possibilities, as well as paying affectionate homage to his predecessors (especially in this case Haydn and Mozart). In last night’s concert, however, I thought the wind instruments (especially the horns) lacked bite and focus and a great deal of the exuberant energy of the last movement was lost.

Next piece up was new to me, the Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch. For this, Joshua Bell stood centre stage while he played the violin role (beautifully, in fact). Based on a series of Scottish folk songs, this work is pretty (in a slightly mushy way). Not really my cup of tea but I did enjoy Joshua Bell’s poised and expressive violin playing. The orchestra, with a beefed up brass section,  played this one better too.

After the interval we had Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”), with Joshua Bell back in eye-threatening mode, in place among the first violins. I’ve always had a soft spot for Mendelssohn because his music always seems so beautifully crafted. Some find him a bit twee and cosy, but the Scottish Symphony is a fine work that takes the listener on a long and dramatic journey through a varied musical landscape. I thought last night’s performance was very fine indeed. When I leave Cardiff I’ll certainly miss having so many opportunities to hear world-class music live!

When we emerged from St David’s Hall, it was bucketing down so we made for a local restaurant for a late supper, a glass or two of wine, and a large amount of departmental gossip. By the time we’d finished chatting and drinking, the rain had gone and I had a pleasant walk home without getting drenched. I’ll miss the Cardiff rain too. Sort of.