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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


September 22, 2018 - September 28, 2018

On the podium

Composer and conductor Gustav Mahler.

A few days ago someone asked on Quora, the question-and-answer website why an orchestra “needs a conductor, when most of time the conductor seems to be doing nothing.”  It’s a good question, because the role of the orchestral conductor is not widely understood outside the classical music world. Even less so in the rice fields of Isaan, for someone from the region once asked me why “there’s always a man dancing in front of the orchestra”.

The tasks of the conductor depend largely on the type of orchestra. A youth orchestra conductor for example, has much more work than a guest conductor of a professional orchestra. Youth orchestra conductors usually have to select the music, hire the scores and parts, audition the players, book the rehearsal venue and deal with dozens of minor matters. They might even have to set up all the chairs and music stands in the rehearsal hall. And you might detect the voice of experience here. The conductor also has to find time to study the music. Conductor and orchestra might rehearse for many weeks or even months before a concert performance. In contrast, conductors of professional orchestras sometimes have only a few hours rehearsal time available, occasionally even on the day of the concert.

Conductors have many more musical tasks than merely beating time, partly due to the limitations of musical notation. Instructions in the score are usually in Italian and often vague to say the least. Expressions such as “a bit slower” or “gradually getting faster” are quite common. Printed music doesn’t tell you exactly how loudly or how quietly a piece should be played, how short a staccato note should be, or how a musical phrase should be “shaped”. As a result, one of the most challenging tasks in performing music is not necessarily playing the right notes in the right place, but deciding how to play them.

Musical decisions define a performance and it’s the conductor’s job to make them. It takes certain personal qualities to convince the members of a sixty-piece orchestra to “play it my way”. Some conductors manage this with ease, tact and consummate charm. Others are less successful in the personal skills department. There are several well-known conductors who are heartily detested by members of the orchestras they conduct. But as my father used to say, “No names; no pack-drill.”

Competent conductors study the orchestral score for weeks or months before rehearsals begin. The score shows what every instrument in the orchestra is playing (or is supposed to be playing) whereas the players see only their own part. The conductor is expected to know every detail of the score intimately and some conductors, notably Gustavo Dudamel commit the entire score to memory. If, at a concert it looks as though the conductor isn’t doing much, it’s because most of the work has already been done. Even so, at performance the conductor still needs to give cues, control tempo and dynamics and ensure that the orchestral balance is appropriate. Some conductors have the gift of pulling that little bit extra out of an orchestra at the concert.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911): Symphony No. 1 (Rehearsal). National Youth Orchestra of the USA cond. James Ross (Duration: 1:10:46; Video: 1080p HD)

This is a splendid example of a typical youth orchestra rehearsal. They tend to have a high element of training, so it’s start-stop-start-stop all the way. Notice how the conductor brings a sense of phrase, shape and balance to the music. He address the “how to” aspect of the music and takes the young musicians beyond the printed notes. And notice how James Ross does this with such apparent ease, keeping the musicians on their toes and yet continuously giving encouragement.

Incidentally, when Mahler started this work in 1887 he was deputy conductor of the Leipzig Opera Orchestra.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981): Adagio for String Orchestra (Rehearsal). American Symphony Orchestra cond. Leopold Stokowski (Duration: 08.46; Video: 480p)

This rehearsal couldn’t be more different. It was filmed in 1968, as Stokowski and his orchestra were preparing for a concert in New York City. At the time, Stokowski was 85 years old and no time is wasted with superfluous words. Instructions are typically given as the musicians are playing. Stokowski wanted the maximum tone from the string players and continuously pleads “piu, piu” (“more, more”). You might be surprised to know that despite his peculiar accent, Stokowski was of English birth. His father was half Polish and his mother was Irish. He was to become one of the great conductors of the twentieth century. But how do conductors achieve “greatness”? Let’s leave that until next week.

September 15, 2018 - September 21, 2018

Wood Working

Composer Aaron Copland

A few days ago during some moments of reflection, I realized that over the years many of my best friends have been woodwind players. At school and music college back in The Old Country I seemed to spend much of my time with woodwind people. I really don’t know why. Throughout my professional life involved in music in one way or another, I have found that woodwind players are generally decent, kind and civilized individuals. I know this to be true because I once saw it written on the back of someone’s T-shirt. “Woodwind players are nice people”, it said. There must be exceptions, but I honestly cannot bring any to mind. So if you happen to be a woodwind player, come over for a drink sometime. I’m sure we would get on well.

Everyone knows that a modern symphony orchestra contains four families of instruments, woodwind, brass, strings and percussion. The brass instruments are made of brass and it would be reasonable to assume that woodwind instruments are made of wood. Not so, of course. In any case, this is an over-simplification. Even when a woodwind instrument has a wooden body, it has stainless steel screws and mechanical parts, cork to line the joints and leather or some synthetic material for the pads under the keys.

Flutes were originally wooden but their tone is too usually soft for modern orchestral use. Yamaha still make them and they’re sometimes seen in early music ensembles. Today, most flutes are made of silver-plated brass. Early clarinets were made from boxwood, pear wood, plum wood and sometimes even ivory. In the 1930s, there was a brief vogue for metal clarinets, especially in jazz bands. Today the bodies of clarinets and oboes for student use are typically made from plastic or some other synthetic material. Professional models are usually made from African Blackwood or Granadilla and bassoons are made from Maple or Rosewood. Saxophones are made of brass, but considered woodwind instruments because their sound-source is a reed, similar to that of a clarinet. The oboe and bassoon are known as double-reed instruments for obvious reasons. Flutes don’t use reeds of any sort, thus saving flute players a great deal of time and money.

Incidentally, there’s a significant difference between student and professional instruments. You can pick up a student flute for example for a few hundred dollars but a professional model will set you back several thousand. But it’s not just the price-tag. A professional player demands an instrument with superior tone quality and projection power, spot-on intonation, high-quality and unfailing mechanical parts, ease of operation during difficult passages and robust enough to withstand hours of constant daily use. Professional flutes are often made from solid silver, sometimes even gold or platinum. A much sought-after Muramatsu 14K gold flute is just under $27,000. And that’s just the starting price.

Alessandro Marcello (1673-1747): Concerto in D minor for Oboe and Orchestra. Fabien Thouand (ob), La Scala Chamber Orchestra (Duration: 00:53; Video: 720p HD)

Alessandro Ignazio Marcello was born in Venice and was the son of a senator. Later, as a nobleman, he enjoyed a comfortable life and had the time and money to dabble in poetry, philosophy, mathematics and music. Although he was a competent composer, Alessandro evidently wrote music largely for his own amusement. He published several sets of concertos as well as vocal works and violin sonatas. Incidentally, don’t confuse him with his younger and more famous brother Benedetto Marcello. This oboe concerto was published in 1717 and it’s perhaps his best-known work. Alessandro Marcello published most of his music under the pseudonym of Eterio Stinfalico but this three-movement oboe concerto is an exception, being published under his real name.  Oh, and case you’re wondering, the orchestra is indeed from La Scala in Milan. It was formed in 1982 by the members of the opera orchestra and they regularly perform without a conductor.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra. Martin Fröst (clt), Norwegian Chamber Orchestra (Duration: 15:35; Video: 720p HD)

The first movement must be one of the most beautiful pieces ever written. Few composers have the gift of writing music that sounds truly American but Copland is one of them. He started the work in 1947 and scored it for strings, piano and harp. It was commissioned by clarinetist Benny Goodman who evidently paid two thousand dollars for the concerto. There are just two movements, linked by an unaccompanied cadenza. The first movement is slow and expressive, full of what’s been described as Copland’s “bitter-sweet lyricism”. The cadenza introduces some of the Latin-American and jazz themes that dominate the lively second movement. This is one of the best recordings around, performed by a brilliant soloist and an incredibly good chamber ensemble. Just listen to the sparkling and virtuosic closing section from 14:15 onwards and the thrilling glissando on the last chord.

September 8, 2018 - September 14, 2018

Going Nuts in Brazil


Heitor Villa-Lobos

You may have forgotten of course, but 7th September is Brazil’s Independence Day, a national holiday commemorating independence from Portugal in 1822. When in 1500, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvarez Cabral became the first European to set foot in what is now Brazil, the country was inhabited by an estimated two thousand different nations and tribes, many of which were semi-nomadic. Cabral promptly claimed the area for the Portugal, which is why Brazil is the only South American country where the official language is Portuguese. Today, there are also nearly two hundred indigenous languages.

Little is known about the music of Brazil before 1500 since no written records exist. We have simply no idea what it sounded like. The European settlers brought with them European musical traditions, though you might have a hard time coming up the names of Brazilian classical composers. Little of their music is performed elsewhere. Only a handful has achieved recognition in Europe and America, most notably Carlos Gomes, Cláudio Santoro and Oscar Lorenzo Fernández. But one figure towers above them. The only Brazilian composer who has achieved world-wide fame was Heitor Villa-Lobos. He was both a conductor and an amazingly prolific composer best known for his Brazilian-sounding music, achieved by drawing heavily on Brazilian folk dances and traditions.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959): Choros No. 6. Orquesta Sinfonica Simón Bolívar cond. Marcelo Lehninger (Duration: 31:02; Video: 480p)

Stravinsky once asked, “Why is it that whenever I hear a piece of music I don’t like, it’s always by Villa-Lobos?”  Despite Stravinsky’s bitchy remark, the colourful, cigar-smoking Villa-Lobos was Brazil’s most famous and respected composer. After he died in Rio de Janeiro he was given a state funeral, the final major event in Rio before the capital transferred to Brasília. He was once described as “the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music.” He was largely self-taught but composed over two thousand works. This brilliant orchestral piece is based on the Brazilian choro which means a cry or lament. It comes from a Brazilian popular music genre which originated in the late nineteenth century. Villa-Lobos wrote fourteen works named Choros all of which have different instrumentation. This work dates from 1926 and was originally scored for chamber orchestra. This powerful and compelling version for full orchestra was written in 1942 and makes much use of percussion. You might be surprised to see a soprano saxophone among the woodwinds, a rare sight in a symphony orchestra. Villa-Lobos wrote that the work is “a kind of romance of the back-country atmosphere of North Eastern Brazil. The climate, colour, temperature, light, chirping of birds, the scent of honeyed grass between the hen-houses and all elements of nature of a hinterland served as inspiration for motives in this work.”

As a bonus, the orchestra’s encore piece (at 26:20) is entitled Batuque, by Oscar Lorenzo Fernández. Much of his music too is decidedly Brazilian in character and he frequently quotes folksongs. In the early 1930s he wrote a three-act opera, entitled Malazarte which is a colourful, nationalistic work and considered the first successful Brazilian opera of its type. As composers so often do, Fernández later wrote an orchestral suite based on music in the opera. Batuque is the title of the last movement and has become especially popular. It’s easy to see why. It’s a lively, percussion-driven piece based on an Afro-Brazilian folk dances with insistent and pulsating rhythms. It seems to give a foretaste of the minimalist movement which was yet to come.

Cláudio Santoro (1919-1989): Ponteio for String Orchestra. Orquestra Sinfônica do Teatro Nacional Cláudio Santoro cond. Claudio Cohen (Duration: 05:11; Video: 480p)

Claudio Franco de Sá Santoro was one of the most energetic and multi-talented individuals of his time. He was a child prodigy violinist and later became a respected teacher, conductor and composer. He established several musical institutions in Brazil and was evidently a dynamic organizer, representing Brazil in many conferences and international organizations. He was distinguished with dozens of awards both for his symphonic works and film soundtracks and he has been guest conductor of many top European orchestras. Ponteio was composed for string orchestra in 1954 and was first performed in that year by Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira. This delightful piece has become very popular and its haunting melody is accompanied by a rhythm that reminds the listener of strummed guitars.

And by the way, did you know that Brazil nuts come from one the largest of trees in the Amazon rainforests? They can live for five hundred years or more and according to some authorities they can reach an age of a thousand years. I bet you didn’t know that. And neither did I until this morning.

Update September 1, 2018 - September 7, 2018

Strings attached


Composer Edvard Grieg on a bad hair day.

All professional musicians know that string players tend to prefer the company of other string players. In an orchestra, they rarely mingle with anyone else. It’s not that string players are snobs you understand, they are just different. And I speak as an ex-string player myself. The cello, since you asked. The string section of a modern symphony orchestra often contains more musicians than the woodwind, brass and percussion put together. Brass players often like to joke amongst themselves that the string players are like a herd of sheep.

In my youth, in a cold grey country far, far away I used to play in youth orchestras. When I was about thirteen, I got a place in our county orchestra. But really, this was no great achievement. Our dog could have probably done the same thing if he’d persevered with the cello lessons.

Even way back then, the brass section of the orchestra seemed a rum lot. They were loutish, unrefined country lads and I think we string players were slightly scared of them. We never spoke to them of course. In later years, when I played in national orchestras it was much the same: the brass players were often rough types. But in those days, the brass section was a preserve of the males of the species. Even today, orchestral brass sections tend to be male dominated.

Musicologists prefer to call string instruments cordophones and it’s thought that the first bowed strings were probably developed in central Asia. In the history of music, the violin and its family are relative newcomers. They didn’t appear until the second half of the 16th century when the unrelated viol family held sway. The string orchestra has since become popular with composers with the result that there’s a surprisingly large repertoire. Some composers have written entire symphonies for strings alone.

A string orchestra usually contains between twelve and twenty-four musicians. They tend to be fairly small. The orchestras I mean, not the musicians. But because there are relatively few players, they can hear each other easily and often perform without a conductor. Like this one, for example.

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907): Holberg Suite. Op 40 Camerata Nordica String Orchestra (Duration: 18:31; Video: 720p HD)

There’s a clever bit of editing at the start of this video which took me rather by surprise. Camerata Nordica is Sweden’s leading string ensemble with most of its members from Scandinavian countries. You’ll probably notice instantly that there’s no conductor.

It might take you a few minutes to realize that there’s something else missing. Yes, it’s printed music. There’s not a sheet of music in sight and no untidy clutter of music stands. Apart from the two cellists all the players are standing. This, together with the fact that the musicians have memorized the music, makes for better eye-contact and therefore more secure ensemble playing. It also makes the performance more visually stimulating.

This delightful suite dates from 1884 and it was written to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the philosopher and playwright Ludvig Holberg, considered one of Scandinavia’s most influential figures. Grieg wrote the work in an eighteenth century style using the dance forms of the period. In that sense, it’s an early example of neo-classicism. The suite was originally composed for piano but during the following year, Grieg skillfully arranged it for string orchestra. Even if this music is new to you, it’s possible you’ll recognise the Gavotte (06:20). You can look forward to some sparkling string playing in the last movement (15:17), a lively French baroque dance known as the Rigaudon.

Peter Warlock (1894-1930): Capriol Suite. Melbourne Chamber Orchestra (Duration: 11:27; Video: 1080p HD)

The name Peter Warlock was actually the pseudonym of the British composer and acerbic music critic Philip Heseltine. The witch-like name reflected his obsession with all things occult. It was used for all his musical works, which include over a hundred songs, a number of choral works and a few instrumental pieces. He also wrote dozens of general music articles and reviews and contributed to many books.

The Capriol Suite dates from 1926 and it’s a set of six short dances. Like the Grieg, it would be described as neo-classical because it was loosely based on melodies from Arbeau’s Orchésographie, a sixteenth century manual of Renaissance dances.

Warlock was a curious figure in British music. He achieved notoriety through his unconventional and often scandalous lifestyle. He has been described an “alcoholic hell-raiser” but at least he wasn’t a brass player. Incidentally, I don’t want to give the impression that I have something against brass players. On the contrary, I have met several who are utterly charming. Or so they told me.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

On the podium

Wood Working

Going Nuts in Brazil

Strings attached