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Update February 2018

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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


February 24, 2018 - March 2, 2018

The sound of silence

Samuel Barber c. 1940.

Do you remember that song from back in the sixties?  It was written in 1963 by Paul Simon, he of Simon and Garfunkel fame and the song was on the radio the other day.  The title reminded me of that abstruse remark by Claude Debussy who said “Music is the silence between the notes.”  Perhaps he meant that music “lies in the silence between the notes” which is not quite the same thing.  Anyway, I think I know what he meant.  Mozart and Busoni make similar comments. 

Debussy was presumably referring to the way a competent musician knows how to “place” notes in relation to one another, a skill sometimes (inaccurately) referred to as “interpretation”.  Knowing exactly where to place the notes sometimes makes the difference between a good performance and a great one.  In essence, I suppose it’s roughly similar to what actors refer to as “timing” though in practice a great deal more complicated.

At its simplest level, silence marks the beginning and end of the music.  It occurs between musical phrases, so that we know where one phrase ends and another one begins.  Think of Gregorian chant and those silent moments between the long flowing phrases. 

Sometimes silence is used to create a sense of surprise or drama.  In Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony there’s a break of several seconds silence at a moment of high drama in the last movement.  In his Sixth Symphony he went even further.  The last eight measures of the work are scored for cellos and basses playing a low chord so quiet that it’s barely audible.  In the final measure, Tchaikovsky writes a rest sign – the musical sign for silence - with a pause mark over the top, thus effectively writing in a period of complete silence at the end of the work. I heard a performance not so long ago in which the conductor held the silent pause for a full twenty-nine seconds. The effect was magical - you could have heard a pin drop.

Twentieth century composers particularly have used silence for dramatic effect.  Tôru Takemitsu and Morton Feldman use silence to create a sense of expanded time and in Webern’s music there seems to be more silence than notes.  In contrast, in one of his string quartets Joseph Haydn used silence for a different reason: to raise a laugh.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Quartet in E flat major Op. 33 No. 2. Ariel Quartet (Duration: 17:20; Video: 720p HD)

In the late summer of 1781, Haydn was forty-nine and at the peak of his career.  Many of his quartets have acquired nicknames, partly because he wrote so many of them.  In this one, known as “The Joke”, Haydn used silence at the end of the last movement to create several false endings, so that the audience would applaud in the wrong places.  It must be been great fun at the first performance.  In this one, the brilliant Israeli Ariel Quartet is exceptional, partly because they perform the entire work from memory.

Throughout the quartet Haydn frequently uses silence to create tension.  The last movement (at 13:55) takes the form of a lively Italian folk dance.  The first false ending is at 16:23; another one at 16.45 and another one at 16.50 which really sounds like the end of the piece.  The real ending arrives at 17.00 but even in this video, the audience seems unsure when to applaud.  After two hundred years, you’d have thought that Haydn’s joke might have worn a bit thin, but as this performance shows it still works.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981): Adagio for Strings. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Sir Simon Rattle (Duration 09:04; Video 360p)

Yes, I know I’ve told you about this work before but it contains such a brilliant use of silence that it’s worth revisiting.  The Adagio (it just means “slowly”) was originally the slow movement of Barber’s String Quartet completed in 1936.  It would have probably remained obscure had not Arturo Toscanini urged Barber to arrange it for orchestra.  The orchestral version has since become hugely popular and been used in several feature films.

In this amazing performance, the start is almost inaudible but gradually the volume and intensity grow until the climax at 06:16.  Then suddenly, silence.  It sounds like the end of the piece but it can’t be, because the music is not in the “home” key.  The tension is incredible and Rattle holds the silence for a full nine seconds.  Then, the music tentatively returns and takes us back to the quiet place where we started.  Perhaps that quiet place could be an elevated dimension in the surreal, dystopian world described in Paul Simon’s song.

February 17, 2018 - February 23, 2018

A golden age perhaps yet to come


Joly Braga Santos.

A couple of days ago, I was drinking some wine from Portugal.  Now in Thailand this is unusual enough, because precious little of the stuff arrives on these shores.  Portugal is best known for Port, a fortified wine which enjoys a loyal following in Britain but I was drinking something which is probably the exact opposite, a glass of Vinho Verde.  The fresh, zesty wine caused my mind to wander towards Portuguese classical music which for many people today is something of a mystery.  Except presumably, the Portuguese.  I couldn’t think of any Portuguese musicians for a start, except the composer Alfredo Keil who wrote lots of operas as well as the Portuguese National Anthem.

The Kingdom of Portugal devolved from Spain during the Middle Ages and it’s the most western part of the European mainland.  Go any further west and you’ll find yourself sloshing around in the North Atlantic.  During the so-called Age of Discovery the country was at the forefront of world-wide exploration.  The Portuguese were, as far as we know the first Europeans to show up in Brazil.  However, unlike the Spanish who found advanced civilizations in Mexico and Peru with precious metals up for grabs, the Portuguese explorers found themselves in a land of hunter-gatherers locked in the Stone Age.  They must have been disappointed, though the locals were in the habit of wandering around naked, so that might have offered some small compensation.

Although there was music at the Portuguese royal court during the sixteenth century most of the action was going on elsewhere in Europe.  Classical music has always gravitated to wealthy royal courts, centres of learning or culturally-developed cities.  Aspiring Portuguese musicians of the day tended to drift off towards the great Spanish cathedrals which provided both training and employment.

During the entire renaissance and baroque periods, there are only a couple of dozen Portuguese composers whose names are still remembered, and then only by music historians.  Times have changed, though Portugal remains a backwater in the annals of musical history.  Perhaps the golden age of Portuguese music is yet to come.

Marcos António da Fonseca Portugal (1762-1830): Missa Breve. Soloists and choir, National Symphony Orchestra of Brazil cond. Ligia Amadio (Duration: 17:23; Video: 720p HD)

Marcos Portugal as he became known was one of the most influential composers of his day.  He achieved international fame for his choral music and his forty operas, twenty-one of which were written for Italian theatres.  He wrote over 140 religious works and had his first public concert at the age of eighteen when two choral works were performed.  Perhaps on the strength of this early success, in 1782 Queen Maria I commissioned a choral and orchestral work which marked the beginning of a close collaboration with the Royal Family that influenced the rest of his professional life.

In 1811, the Prince Regent summoned him to the Portuguese colony of Brazil where he became the Royal Composer.  He remained in Brazil for the rest of his life until his death on 17th February 1830. The Missa Breve was composed by order of His Imperial Majesty in December 1824.  It is a charming work though stylistically a bit old- fashioned and owes much to Mozart and Haydn.  But I suspect the ex-pats in Brazil at the time were probably starved of decent music, so this must have come as something of a treat.

Joly Braga Santos (1924–1988): Symphony No.1, Op. 9. EPMVC Symphony Orchestra cond. Luís Carvalho (Duration: 38:04; Video: 720p HD)

Braga Santos was Portugal’s leading twentieth century composer and symphonist who also wrote three operas, three ballets, numerous concerti and other orchestral works, choral music, chamber music, film music and songs.  He was also a professional conductor and a music producer for Portuguese radio. 

This brooding, three-movement symphony was written in 1946 when Braga Santos was twenty-two.  It was composed in memory of those fallen during the Second World War and it uses many folk-like melodies, often against a background of sustained strings and effective harmonies.  This is attractive and compelling music, sometimes quite moving too but you’ll probably notice that at the time Braga Santos was heavily influenced by the music of composers Vaughan Williams and Sibelius.  The gloomy, threatening brass chords at 11:09 and the scurrying string passage that follows could almost have been written by that Finnish composer.

Just in case you’re wondering, EPMVC stands for Escola Profissional de Música de Viana do Castelo (Vocational School of Music of Viana do Castelo).  According to Lonely Planet, the Portuguese city of Viana do Castelo is considered the jewel of the Costa Verde, “blessed with both an appealing medieval centre and lovely beaches just outside the city.  The old quarters showcase leafy, nineteenth-century boulevards and narrow lanes crowded with rococo manors and palaces.”  I can’t wait to get there.

Update Saturday, February 10, 2018 - February 16, 2018

Symphony in red


Composer Philip Sparke.

Now then, what colour is the key of C major?  Or the smell of B minor?  Or perhaps the taste of E flat?  The Russian composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov always felt that G major is a brownish-gold key and once remarked that that the key of F-sharp “is decidedly strawberry red”.  His compatriot Alexander Scriabin felt that G major is more of an orange-rose colour.  Beethoven on the other hand is said to have called B minor “the black key”.  Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire was written in 1910 for massive orchestra and choir and was based on key colour.  The work also featured the newly-invented colour organ, but oddly enough no one today seems to know exactly how the thing worked.

The notion of linking musical elements with colour is called chromesthesia.  It is a type of synesthesia – a condition which has been described in layman’s terms as a union of the senses in which one sensory experience involuntarily prompts another.  The philosopher John Locke wrote about combined senses as early as the seventeenth century, though the term synesthesia wasn’t coined until the mid-1800s.  About the same time the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher perceived a correspondence between colours and musical intervals.  He thought that an octave was green, a major sixth was fire-red and an augmented fifth was dark brown.

According to Carol Steen, the co-founder of the American Synesthesia Association, there are more than sixty permutations of synesthesia and around four percent of us have the condition in some form.  They might include tasting words to smelling a piano concerto but the most common kinds of synesthesia involve colour.  Sibelius is thought to have sometimes seen music as colours, and Duke Ellington felt that G major is light blue satin but only if Johnny Hodges is playing it.  That seems a curious association because I’ve always thought of G major as warm bright yellow, whether Johnny Hodges is playing or not.

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915): Symphony No 3 in C minor Op. 43. Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia cond. Dima Slobodeniouk (Duration: 53:56; Video: 1080p HD)

Scriabin’s Third Symphony is subtitled The Divine Poem and was written between 1902 and 1904.  The work marked a significant step towards Scriabin’s personal musical language and has a visionary quality which was only hinted at in his earlier works.  At the time the composer was under the influence of the cult philosopher Tatiana de Schloezer and music had come to mean a sensory reaching-out to experiences beyond the prosaic.  Perhaps this is why he used the word “poem” in the title.  The four sections of the work are played without a break and consist of (1) Introduction, (2) Struggles (3) Delights and (4) Divine Play.

Colours play a less significant role in this work but Scriabin’s use of orchestral colour is remarkable, because his orchestration is highly sophisticated.  In some sections, Scriabin turns his orchestra into an ensemble of soloists, each contributing points of detail to a complex web of sound.  Scriabin liked a massive orchestral sound and some moments in this work seem to be the inspiration for the great Hollywood movie scores that would be created thirty or forty years later.  In a way, the music is an expression of the existentialism of the late nineteenth century and the mysticism of the famous Madame Blavatsky, she of the controversial Theosophical Society.  Anyway, if you love big romantic, hedonistic orchestral wall-to-wall sound, Scriabin’s Third Symphony will be right up your soi.

Philip Sparke (b. 1951): Symphony No. 3: A Colour Symphony. WISH Wind Orchestra (Japan) cond. Makoto Kai (Duration: 26:46; Video 720p HD)

In 1922 the composer Arthur Bliss completed his Colour Symphony but its origins lay in heraldry in which symbolic meanings are attached to certain colours.  Philip Sparke is another British composer and this Colour Symphony was first performed in November 2014.  The commission requested the inclusion of a selection of instruments not usually found in a symphonic band, including piano, harp and cellos.  The composer had the idea of writing a symphony of colours to take advantage of the rich palette of instrumental sounds available.  Sparke perceives equivalencies between instrumental tone colours and certain harmonies and colours of the spectrum.

There are five movements and each movement represents a colour.  The first movement (“White”) uses pure instrumental colours and clean textures while the lively second movement (“Yellow”) has a feeling of brightness and sunshine.  In contrast, the third movement (“Blue”) has an atmosphere of stillness and desolation and the next movement (“Red”) makes special use of the brass, with energetic contrapuntal sections and fanfares.  The last movement (“Green”) takes the colour from nature and has a dance-like character with a triumphant ending. 

If all this sounds a bit technical, fear not.  Sparke’s music contains many elements of folk-song and the work is delightfully approachable.

Update Saturday, February 3, 2018 - February 9, 2018

Two of the best


Fritz Kreisler.

Jascha Heifetz.

The other day I was chatting with some friends (yes, I do have some) about who were considered the world’s top violinists.  This is a subject guaranteed to cause heated discussion especially among string players.  All the usual names were dredged up but in some ways it was a fruitless exercise.  For example, what criteria do you use?  Technical ability would come near the top of the list, but that’s a broad category that includes things like mastery of bowing techniques, articulation, velocity, projection, dynamic control, tone quality and vibrato.  And that’s just the start.  And do you consider breadth and quality of repertoire, contributions to playing technique and stage presence?

The few musicians that are considered “great” acquire it because they also bring insights into the music that no one else has managed.  It is a remarkably difficult thing to do, which is why there are comparatively few “great” musicians.  It requires supreme intelligence, phenomenal memory and an intimate knowledge and understanding of the music.

Anyway, after a great deal of animated discussion everyone conceded that a list of top violinists would surely include the names Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz.  They were both child prodigies; they both lived most of their lives in the twentieth century and both made many recordings.  They set new standards for the art of violin playing and while Kreisler’s personal trademark was his sweet warm tone quality, Heifetz was more renowned for his incredible bowing ability and staggering virtuosity that remains unmatched to this day.  They knew each other too, yet when Kreisler first heard the eleven-year-old Heifetz in 1912, he famously remarked, “We can all just break our fiddles over our knees.”  Oddly enough, although Kreisler and Heifetz were born about twenty-six years apart they both entered the world on 2nd February.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Violin Concerto in D major Op. 77. Fritz Kreisler (vln), London Symphony Orchestra cond. John Barbirolli (Duration: 37:11; sound only, no video)

Friedrich “Fritz” Kreisler (KRIZE-luh) was born in Vienna in 1875 and at the age of twelve he won the Premier Grand Prix de Rome gold medal competing against forty other players some of whom were almost twice his age.  Most of his recordings were made between 1904 and 1946 but have since been digitally re-mastered and available on CDs.  Today his playing style might sound a bit old-fashioned because he freely used a technique known as portamento which involves sliding between one note and another.  It’s now considered rather dated and sentimental, yet in Kreisler’s time it was standard practice and thought to make the music sound more expressive.

Kreisler had relatively few concertos in his repertoire but he knew Brahms personally and so this performance must count as something special.  It’s his only concerto for violin and dates from 1879.  It was premiered the same year in Leipzig by the legendary Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim with the composer conducting.

The Kreisler recording was made in 1936 when the violinist was in his sixties but it reveals the legendary Kreisler sound though perhaps not as rich as it once was.  In the first movement there is a “magic minute” between 04:10 and 05:10 when the second theme appears on the solo violin. The cadenza at the end of the first movement was written by Kreisler himself and it is an amazing musical feat.  There’s another magic moment at 19.15 just after the cadenza.  But to my mind the whole work is full of wonderful moments so I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself. 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921): Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor Op. 28. Jascha Heifetz (vln), Studio Orchestra cond. Alfred Newman (Duration: 08:40; Video: 720p)

Jascha Heifetz (HIGH- fets) has been described as “the most profoundly influential performing artist of all time”.  That other great violinist Itzhak Perlman once wrote “The goals he set still remain today, and for violinists today it’s rather depressing that they may never really be attained again.”

Heifetz was a child prodigy born in 1901 in Vilna, Lithuania.  He started violin at the age of five and later moved to America giving his teenage debut at Carnegie Hall to a rapturous audience.  Heifetz had a dazzling technique as well as a remarkably beautiful tone quality.  There are several films about Heifetz on YouTube.

This work for violin and orchestra dates from 1863 and was written for the virtuoso Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate.  This recording is something of a curiosity, being taken from a 1939 movie entitled They Shall Have Music.  The story follows a young ghetto boy who dreams of being a violinist like Heifetz.  He first hears his idol after finding a ticket to Carnegie Hall on the pavement. 

Heifetz plays magnificently and is clearly on top form.  Watch out for some phenomenal playing at 07:12.  And yes, that young man conducting so meticulously is the renowned Hollywood composer, Alfred Newman.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

The sound of silence

A golden age perhaps yet to come

Symphony in red

Two of the best



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