Archive for St David’s Hall

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.

Mozart and Strauss, and the End of Term

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on June 16, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday (Friday 15th June) was officially the last day of teaching term at Cardiff University. I think most of our students toddled off  some time ago when their last exams were finished,  so for us on the staff side the teaching term has fizzled out gradually rather than go out with a bang. Yesterday I met with a couple of next year’s project students to give them some background reading to do over the summer and that was that for another year of undergraduate teaching.

There was something of an “end-of-term” feeling too to last night’s concert at St David’s Hall, which was also broadcast live on BBC Radio 3; you can listen to it yourself by clicking on that second link. This was not only the last concert of the 2011/12 season by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, but also  last concert at St David’s Hall to be conducted by Thierry Fischer, who has been principal conductor for the BBC NOW for the past six years. Next year Thomas Søndergård will take over.The concert turned out to be a fitting finale to the season and a fine farewell to Thierry Fischer.

The first item on the agenda was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 played by none other than the wonderful Angela Hewitt.  I wasn’t all that familiar with this piece beforehand, and was surprised to see such a large orchestra on stage before the start. Apparently  this work was the first time Mozart had used clarinets in a piano concerto, and the larger force than I’d normally have associated with a Mozart piece of this type gave the performance a much more opulent sound than I’d expected. It’s an interesting work, with a particularly fine Andante second movement which is both sombre and expansive sandwiched between two quicksilver Allegro movements, the last being a kind of rondo. Angela Hewitt played it with crisp elegance and perfect articulation. Some people find her playing a bit fussy and punctilious, and indeed there were times when I thought the performance could have had a bit more fire in it, but for my part it was a treat to get the chance to see a great artist in the flesh; she has an engaging presence on stage too, clearly enjoying the performance, and smiling from time to time in appreciation at the orchestral playing. We even got a nice little solo encore, which is quite unusual for a live broadcast from St David’s.

Then there was an interval so we could all check the football score, and guzzle a quick glass of overpriced wine before returning to hear the Alpine SymphonyOp. 64 by Richard Strauss. If the orchestra for Part 1 had been large by Mozartian standards, then this one was immense! Well over a hundred musicians, with a huge brass section (supplemented by many more standing off-stage and just visible to me through an open door), harps, percussion (including cow bells and a wind machine), and some unusual instruments including a Heckelphone (what the heck?…). Oh, and the fine organ in St David’s Hall got a full workout too.

Strictly speaking, this is not actually a symphony; it’s more of a tone poem. But Strauss was rather good at them and this one is a wonderful evocation of a day’s journey in the Bavarian Alps, from a resplendent dawn to a tranquil sunset, with summits to be scaled, thunderstorms to be endured, glaciers to be traversed, and so on. It’s certainly a very vivid piece of programmatic music.

As you might have inferred from huge band gathered on stage, this is a work that gets very loud, especially when the organist literally pulls out all the stops. What was especially fine about the performance was that, although the musicians of BBC NOW weren’t afraid to give it some welly whenever it was called for, their playing never became wild or ragged. I don’t know what it sounded like on the radio, but it was a thrilling experience to be in the hall.  I lost count of the number of towering crescendo passages, and just let the waves of wonderful noise wash over me. At times I could feel it through my feet too.

There were cheers at the end, and a standing ovation for Thierry Fischer not only for this performance but for his service to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.  And that brought the term and the season to a close; both start again in late September 2012. There are some cracking concerts in store in the next season in St David’s Hall.

Shostakovich and Debussy

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2012 by telescoper

With Cardiff likely to be in the grip of Olympic Torch fever I decided yesterday to avoid the crowds as much as possible and take in a  bit of culture in the form of a concert at St David’s Hall. My usual route into work being blocked by the closure of Bute Park to the public I walked into the city centre, paid in a few very welcome royalty cheques at the bank, and went to St David’s in person to book a ticket. I had no problem getting a good seat, but the staff issued dire warnings about getting here in good time for the 7.30 start as the Olympic Torch would be passing right in front of the venue just before the concert.

Despite the crowds I reckoned I had time for a quick pint (or two) in the Poet’s Corner before kick-off. Walking there from my office I saw a few people on Newport Road waiting for the Torch and its entourage, but not all that many. While I drank and chatted with a couple of PC regulars, the noise of a helicopter circling announced the arrival of the flame in our vicinity. I was almost tempted to pop outside for a look, but although the Olympic Torch was outside, the beer was inside and a man must have priorities in life.

So about 6.45 I headed off towards St David’s Hall. There were people out and about, but no more than you’d expect on a sunny Friday evening. Traffic had already re-started and disruption seemed fairly minimal. I don’t know where the Torch had got to by then but I arrived at the Hall at 7.00 to find a crowd watching it on the Big Screen in the Hayes. I went straight in and had a nice glass of wine.

When I got into the auditorium for the evening’s concert I was a bit taken aback, not only by the huge size of the orchestra (particularly the brass section) but also by its unusual arrangement: the strings were divided in two, arranged more-or-less symmetrically with cellos and basses to far left and far right. I was also initially perturbed that my favourite handsome violinist was not in his usual place, but I soon located him and all was well with the world.

The concert, featuring the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by associate guest conductor Francois-Xavier Roth, was broadcast live last night on BBC Radio 3, incidentally, and you can listen to a recording here.

The unusual orchestral arrangement was needed for the first piece of the concert, called Sound and Fury, by contemporary French composer Philippe Manoury. This is a work that’s full of contrasting moods, set against an overall concept relating to the battle between order and chaos. Passages in which stable melodic lines can be identified evolve into savage cacophony and back again; there are also sequences where the two halves of the orchestra act as two independent forces, challenging and responding to each other across the stage. Not exactly easy listening, but fascinating nonetheless.

After the interval we had the two “main pieces” of the evening, played by a more conventional orchestral line-up. First was the First Violin Concerto by Dmitry Shostakovich with soloist Daniel Hope (dressed, I have to say, in a horrible shiny suit). The open movement, entitled Nocturne, is striking for its lightness, and the apparent simplicity of its singing solo lines. The second movement Scherzo, darker and more intense, is followed by a wonderful slow movement marked Passacaglia, the end of which is marked by a fiendishly difficult solo cadenza that bridges into the final Burlesque. Daniel Hope played it with great verve and confidence, but in the context of the overall work I found it a bit gratuitous. Still an impressive piece, though, with many of the hallmarks of Shostakovich’s great symphonies.

The last piece was Images pour Orchestra by Claude Debussy. While the preceding Shostakovich work is perhaps a symphony masquerading as a suite, Images is definitely not a symphony. It’s a series of impressionistic and enigmatic vignettes of very differing mood. It’s in three movements, but the central one is itself divided into three distinct parts, so it is really five movements. The opening one includes, to my surprise, the Northumbrian tune The Keel Row and there are references to Spanish and French folk songs later on.  The whole impression you get listening to this work is similar to walking through an art gallery looking at paintings that relate to each other in some ways, but contrast in others, or perhaps reading an anthology of poems by different poets.

Three different works from the 20th century, each with a very characteristic voice of its own and each with much to enjoy made for an absorbing concert. St David’s Hall was rather sparsely populated – the Cardiff audience is notoriously conservative in its musical tastes, and the Olympic Torch business wouldn’t have helped –  but those that had made the effort were extremely appreciative at the end.

Having got my musical fix for the week I headed home. It must have only been about 9.45, but the concert in Bute Park seemed to have ended already. The city was busy, but not unusually so. The barricades had gone, and the buses were running again. I walked home through Sophia Gardens in the deepening twilight and saw a bat flying nimbly in silhouette against the crescent moon. Whatever happens in the future, that Image will be a treasured memory of Cardiff.

The Tallis Scholars

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on May 4, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve always wanted to be at a live performance of the legendary 40 part motet  Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, not only  because it’s a gorgeous piece of music but also because I’ve always wondered what the conductor is supposed to do with his hands when there are so many independent parts. It’s such a complicated and demanding work, however, that opportunities to hear it live are rather limited. Last night’s concert at St David’s Hall by the Tallis Scholars (supplemented by a local choir; the Tallis Scholars number only ten singers) actually involved two performances of Tallis’ most famous work, first at the beginning and then again right at the end.

If you’ve never heard Spem in Alium before, then you really should make the effort. It’s an extraordinary piece of music in many different ways. Most writers focus on its complexity, but that shouldn’t make you think Tallis was just showing off when he wrote it, or distract you from the fact that it’s so very beautiful to listen to. The forty parts  involved are divided into eight choirs, each of five voices. The piece starts with one voice from the first choir, and slowly evolves to incorporate all forty voices, waving each individual vocal line into a gorgeous musical tapestry. At times all the voices seem to be acting independently within the overall harmonic framework, at others the choirs act as the basic unit; there’s a wonderful passage, for example, when choirs throw phrases backwards and forwards between them. There are also moments when all the evolving parts come back into phase so that all voices sing the same words at the same time. The effect of this is indescribable; it sent cold shivers down my spine.

There is so much going on in this piece that it’s difficult to understand how Tallis managed to stop the different parts interfering destructively with each other, but Spem in Alium  never dissolves into a shapeless melisma. As the piece unfolds, the various patterns that appear and disappear are always held in sharp focus. It’s a masterpiece, and although the large space of St David’s Hall probably isn’t ideal for performing a work like this, my long wait to hear a live performance of this masterpiece was well worth it.

The concert wasn’t just about Spem in Alium.  The Tallis Scholars performed a number of other works on their own, including pieces by Tallis’ old mate William Byrd and part of one of my other favourite Tallis works, The Lamentations of Jeremiah. The programme called for various combinations of the singers drawn from the ten in the basic line-up, producing a wide range of texture and colour.

It was all extremely enjoyable, but my lasting memory will be the piece that started and ended the show. There’s so much to discover listening to Spem in Alium that the second performance of it that ended the concert made me want to hear a third straight away.

PS. One of the other pieces performed during the concert was Tallis’ Miserere, which aptly described Cardiff City’s performance at home to West Ham in their play-off semi-final which was being played at the same time as the concert!

Haydn and Mahler

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on April 21, 2012 by telescoper

Returning from my travels I thought it was a good plan to make the most of the many opportunities Cardiff presents for listening to live music by going to last night’s concert at St David’s Hall. In there’s a considerable flurry of activity in the music scene over the next few weeks so if I can find the time during the flurry of work that will happen simultaneously then I’ll probably be doing quite a lot of concert-going (and blogging). I’m particularly looking forward to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival which offers a much more daring selection of music than the rather conservative fare on offer at St David’s.

Anyway, last night’s concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales began with Symphony No. 104 (“London”) by Joseph Haydn, the last symphony he ever wrote. It’s very typically Haydn, beautifully crafted in a straightforward, middle-of-the-road kind of way. Under the direction of conductor Thierry Fischer the Orchestra gave a polished performance of what is a familiar favourite. Like the other Haydn symphonies I’ve heard (which isn’t all that many actually), I found it quite enjoyable but rather unadventurous. For all that I admire the way it fits together so beautifully, his music is a bit too “safe” for my liking. I found it all a bit trite, I’m afraid.

The audience was rather sparse for the Haydn, but after the interval it filled up with a lot of young people, presumably music students. A number of them had A4 pads at the ready, which made me conjecture that Mahler might be on the examination syllabus this year. In fact when I booked a ticket, most of the stalls area showed up as taken. As usual, however, most of the capacity was given to BBC employees rather than sold to the public. When I went to collect my ticket before the performance, there was a problem printing it out so I had to get someone to write one out by hand. When she started she asked “Are you with the BBC, or did you actually pay?” Often the recipients of this largesse don’t bother to turn up, which makes for flat atmosphere during the performance. It can’t be fun for the performers to see swathes of empty seats in front of them.

Anyway, as I said, after the interval the hall was much fuller, as was the stage as Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler requires a much larger orchestra than the Haydn piece, although not as large as some of Mahler’s other works. Symphony No. 4 is one of the most accessible of Mahler’s works, which is not to say that it’s particularly simple from a compositional point of view; its shifting tonality contrasts markedly with the static feel of the Haydn work we heard earlier. There’s also much less angst in this Symphony than you get with other Mahler symphonies. Although it has its tempestuous passages, the prevailing atmosphere is one of an almost childlike tenderness and there are moments of radiant beauty. Often in Mahler the light merely serves to make the shadows darker, but not in this piece. It’s wonderful.

I particularly enjoyed the restful 3rd movement, starting with cellos and plucked basses and gradually expanding to incorporate the entire orchestra, it slowly swings between sadness and consolation.The last movement, based on an extended setting of the Song Das himmlische Leben from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, depicting a child’s version of Paradise, beautifully sung last night by soprano Lisa Milne. It’s a far more satisfactory conclusion than most romantic symphonies from a structural point of view, as well as being a wonderful thing to listen to in itself.

Although both symphonies consist of four movements, the Mahler (58 mins) is almost exactly twice as long as the Haydn (29 mins). But that’s not the point. There’s just so much more going on in the Mahler, both inside the music and in its emotional impact. Haydn entertained me, but Mahler moves me. I could summarize the difference by suggesting that Haydn was a craftsman and Mahler was an artist.


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.

Ode to Joy

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on October 1, 2011 by telescoper

A very busy week for me ended with a very busy Friday including a postgraduate induction event followed by our annual postgaduate conference. It was actually a very enjoyable day with some really excellent talks by research students about their ongoing projects, but by the end of the afternoon I was definitely flagging.

Fortunately I’d planned a reward at the end of this week in the form of a concert at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC National Chorus of Wales with conductor Thierry Fischer. I bought a group of tickets for myself and some colleagues from work, hoping that it would prove an uplifting experience. We weren’t disappointed.

Before the interval (of which more anon) we heard On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams. Written as a response to the events of September 11th  2001, this is an unusual composition involving orchestra, chorus, children’s choir, and pre-recorded tape. Opinions about this piece are generally pretty divided and that also proved to be the case with the half-a-dozen of us who attended last night. All thought the orchestral music was very good indeed, but some found the recorded bits intrusive and the text, which includes phrases from missing-persons posters and memorials posted around Ground Zero to be a mixture of the banal and the mawkish. I wasn’t as negative about these aspects as some seem to have been, but at the same time I didn’t feel the pre-recorded segments actually added very much and they did sometimes make it difficult to hear the subtle textures in the orchestra. And as for the text being “banal”, that seems to me to be entirely the point. It’s the everdayness of loss that makes grief so overwhelming.

Anyway, I thought it was a fascinating  piece and it’s definitely the first time I’ve seen the violin section of an orchestra come on stage with two violins each. Some passages call for altered tunings, so they swapped instruments regularly throughout the performance. The orchestra played wonderfully well, I should say, and the performance was warmly received by the audience.

Then came the interval, during which the fire alarm went off and we had to evacuate the concert hall. Fortunately it was a sultry evening – we’re in the midst of an early autumn heatwave here –  and it wasn’t at all unpleasant to get a bit of fresh air while they figured out what had caused the alarm.

When we got back in it became obvious that quite a few people had left, possibly because they thought the performance wouldn’t resume. Those that didn’t return missed an absolute treat.

I’m not even going to attempt a description of  Beethoven’s  “Choral” Symphony No. 9 in D Minor. Suffice to say that it’s one of the pinnacles of human achievement, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Beethoven was profoundly deaf when it was written. It’s a masterpiece of such dimensions that words are completely unnecessary to describe it, even if one could find words that were appropriate in the first place.  Moreover, I think it’s a piece you really have to hear live for it to really live. Our seats were almost at the front of the stalls, very near the stage and close enough for me to to be able to feel the fortissimo passages through the soles of my feet. Perhaps that’s the only way Beethoven himself ever heard this piece?

And as for last night’s performance, what can I say? The first, Allegro, movement, an entire symphony in itself, found the orchestra at the very peak of its collective prowess. Their playing was passionate and vivid, yet tightly disciplined and the orchestra seemed to be pervaded by a sense that it was an absolute privilege to be playing an undisputed masterpiece. I was so carried away that at the end of that movement an involuntary tear fell from my eye.

I’ll just add one other observation about this piece, concerning the final movement, based around Beethoven’s setting of parts of Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy to which Beethoven himself added some material.  This is so famous that I suspect it’s the only part of the symphony that many people have heard. Hearing it in the context of the entire work, however, makes it all the more dramatic and inspirational. It’s not just that you have to wait so long for the choir (who have been sitting patiently behind the orchestra for three movements) to let rip, but also that you’ve experienced so much wonderful music by the time you get there that the final is virtually guaranteed to leave you completely overwhelmed.

Sincerest thanks to Thierry Fischer and the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales for an absolutely unforgettable experience. Uplifting? Not half!

P.S. The performance was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on October 3rd 2011 in Afternoon on 3  and will presumably be on iPlayer for a week after that. Do listen to it if you get the chance. Even if only a small  fraction of the atmosphere inside St David’s Hall makes its way into the airwaves then it will still be worth a listen..

St David’s Day Concert

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on March 2, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve finally found a few minutes before dinner to post a quick review of last night’s St David’s Day concert at St David’s Hall here in Cardiff.

I was very lucky with the tickets for this because when I first went on the on-line booking system there didn’t seem to be any blocks of good seats available, and I was hoping to go with a contingent of work colleagues and their partners. However, I was then distracted by work things and decided to try again later. When I logged on again, a set of front-row seats had mysteriously appeared. I snapped them all up for £20 quid each and had no problem finding buyers for them all. And so it was that we took our seats last night just a few feet from the edge of the stage for the performance, which was broadcast Live on BBC Radio 3.

The main item on the bill was the perennial Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, which accounted for the huge number of singers ranged up behind the stage. These included not only the BBC National Chorus of Wales (on the right of the stage) but also massed County Youth Choirs from all across the Principality (in the centre) and a choir of very young children from Ysgol Gymreig Pwll Coch to the left. The latter, I should say, in case I forget later, were absolutely terrific.

However, before the interval the divers choirs had a chance simply to listen to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales play Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43 by Sergei Rachmaninov, featuring Welsh pianist Llŷr Williams. It was a pleasant enough warm-up, with flashes of virtuosic brilliance as well as lots of changes of mood, although I did think it took soloist and Orchestra quite a while to gel together. Incidentally, the “theme by Paganini” used as the basis of this piece is the same one that was used for the musical introduction to the South Bank Show, although I think quite a lot of people know that.

Anyway, it’s quite a short piece so the interval came up quickly. In the bar we found free Welsh cakes and bara brith, which was delicious, and 20 minutes later we were back in the hall for the main event.

The Carmina Burana is of course an extremely popular concert piece, but the fact that it’s so well known hasn’t resulted in it becoming a commonplace experience. It’s one of those works that can sound fresh and exciting no matter how many times you’ve heard it before. In fact, last night’s performance was gripping right from the start.

It’s probably a dangerous trick for a composer to use their best idea right at the start, but it works in this case. The opening O Fortuna made it clear to every one in the hall that we were in for a treat, as the sense of controlled power from the massed voices was quite spine-tingling. There’s only a  problem with starting  brilliantly if you can’t sustain it, but that’s not the case with the Carmina Burana. The text is taken from a curious collection of 13th century poems – mainly in ecclesiastical latin, but with smatterings of German and Provencal. Curious because, although they were written by monks, they are decidedly secular in subject matter including bawdy drinking songs and lewd lyrics about sexual lust. The music is quite varied too, using bits of plain chant alongside more modern-sounding sections. In other words, there are enough contrasts in both subject matter and musical style you keep you hooked all the way through; at least that what I felt.

As well as the massed choirs there are three solo vocalists, although the work isn’t shared equally. Baritone Christopher Maltman had by far the most to do and he certainly earned his crust. Soprano Sarah Tynan sang her pieces very nicely, especially when she was teamed up with the splendid children’s choir. Tenor Allan Clayton only had one piece to do – a song about a swan being roasted on a spit – but he didn’t fluff it when his chance finally came.

Conductor Andrew Litton (left) cut an engaging figure on the podium. Bouncing up and down with an energy that belied his rotund appearance I thought he looked like a cross between John Sessions and Jocky Wilson.  He also kept the enormous orchestral and choral forces together quite superbly and managed to conjure up an excellent performance from all concerned. When we made it to a local restaurant after the performance we found him sitting just one table away. He’d certainly earned his dinner!

Carmina Burana ends with a recapitulation of the initial number O Fortuna – best known perhaps for being used in the film The Omen – after which much applause reverberated around the hall. Rightly so, as it was a really wonderful concert.

It didn’t end quite there, however. Since it was St David’s Day there was a final rendition of the Welsh National Anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau which the audience joined in. With the massed choirs belting it out as if their lives depended on it I’m not sure how much we were heard on the Radio, but I can tell you that it sounded great inside the hall.