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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye

 

July 14, 2018 - July 20, 2018

Made in England

The Royal Albert Hall at the 2008 Proms.

Friday the Thirteenth may have sinister overtones for some people, but this month it marks the start of what’s been described as “the world’s greatest classical music musical festival.” I refer of course to the Proms, an eight-week summer feast of orchestral concerts held mainly in London’s Royal Albert Hall. With over ninety orchestral concerts the Proms will draw some of the world’s greatest classical musicians to the capital. The word “promenade” comes from the French verb promener, meaning “to walk”. It was used to describe the open-air concerts that were given in London’s parks and pleasure gardens since the middle of the 18th century.

The present day Proms began 123 years ago in 1895, inaugurated by the impresario Robert Newman and the conductor Henry Wood. The concerts were held at Queen’s Hall, a massive Victorian building in Central London with room for about 2,500 people. In 1927 the British Broadcasting Corporation took over the concerts and has continued to the present day. Queen’s Hall was destroyed during a wartime air raid in 1941 and the Proms moved to the Royal Albert Hall which has a capacity for over five thousand people.

The season culminates with the popular concert known as The Last Night of the Proms famous for its British patriotic music accompanied by flag-waving and audience participation. All this shenanigans is in total contrast the other concerts which are much more conventional.

The Promenaders are those who stand throughout the concert either in the large area directly in front of the stage or in the gallery at the top of the hall which, if you don’t suffer from vertigo, can offer a bird’s-eye view of the stage. There are well over a thousand standing places available for each concert and tickets are a mere Bt 500; half that if you are under eighteen. The hall also has comfortable seating for those who are prepared to pay extra.

Last year 300,000 people attended Proms, though millions more heard the concerts on radio and television. All the concerts are broadcast live on UK national radio or streamed on the Internet and many will be televised on BBC Four.  So this week, let’s hear two works that will be performed on the opening night of Friday the Thirteenth and recorded at previous Prom concerts.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Toward the Unknown Region. Irish Youth Chamber Choir, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and Youth Choir of Great Britain cond. Vasily Petrenko (Duration: 12:20; Video: 240p)

The evocative title is from a poem by Walt Whitman, whose writing influenced many young artists and musicians during the late nineteenth century. Vaughan Williams was fascinated by Whitman’s poetry and the collection of poems Leaves of Grass was a constant companion. The Sea Symphony of 1910, written for choir and orchestra uses Whitman’s poetry throughout.

Toward the Unknown Region was first performed at the Leeds Festival in October 1907 with the composer conducting.  It was his first major choral work, though it’s rarely performed today. This is a shame for it’s a wonderful setting of the poem with superb choral writing, brilliant orchestration and soaring melodies. This splendid performance, recorded at the Proms in 2013 is as fresh and captivating as ever, with excellent audio quality too.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934): The Planets, Op. 32. National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and the CBSO Youth Chorus cond. Edward Gardner (Duration: 55:33; Video: 720p HD)

Scored for a huge orchestra, this seven-movement orchestral suite may not have been written if Gustav Holst hadn’t gone on holiday to Mallorca in the spring of 1913. During the visit, his friend Clifford Bax (the brother of composer Arnold Bax) introduced Holst to astrology and this gave him the idea for this work, which was finally completed in 1918. The concept is astrological rather than astronomical and the music portrays the supposed emotions and influences of the planets on the human psyche.  

The first movement Mars, the Bringer of War has five beats to the bar and an ominous insistent rhythmic pattern dominates the entire movement. At the opening, the strings play this rhythm col legno which involves hitting the string with the wood of the bow, producing an eerie percussive sound. 

The fourth movement Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity includes a memorable tune that the composer later adapted as a hymn. The last movement, Neptune, the Mystic was one of the first pieces of orchestral music to have a fade-out ending. It uses a female chorus which in this performance remains hidden up in the gallery.

Holst didn’t write a movement for Pluto because the planet wasn’t discovered until 1930. This however, hasn’t stopped other composers from trying. In 2000, the Hallé Orchestra commissioned the English composer Colin Matthews, an authority on Holst, to write a new eighth movement, which he called Pluto, the Renewer and it’s included in this performance.


July 7, 2018 - July 13, 2018

Merry Overtures

 

Kabalevsky in Perth, 1974.

We tend to associate the word overture with opera because the two have existed side by side for the last four hundred years. The word looks slightly French which is not surprising, because it is. It means “opening” and it’s used to describe the orchestral introduction to an opera. Even the earliest known opera, written in the late 1590s by the Italian singer-composer Jacopo Peri is preceded by a short instrumental section.

The custom continued through the history of opera. Perhaps the original idea was to give the audience sufficient time to shuffle around and settle down before the serious stuff began. The notion of introductory music also crept into the movie industry but served a different purpose: to provide an appropriate mood setting during the opening credits.

By the end of the eighteenth century, popular opera overtures were often played as separate items in the concert hall. Not long afterwards, the so-called concert overture began to appear. It was intended not as an introduction to an opera but as a stand-alone piece, often played at the beginning of a concert.

The word overture was adopted possibly because no one felt the need for an alternative. Many of these concert overtures were based on literary themes and although Weber wrote a couple of them, it’s generally assumed that the first genuine concert overture was A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826) by the seventeen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn derived of course by Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Mendelssohn went on to write several other notable concert overtures such as Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (1828) and The Hebrides (1830) inspired by his visit to the Scottish island of Staffa in the summer of the previous year.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the concert overture was firmly established and remained a favourite among composers for generations. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture springs to mind as does Tchaikovsky’s old pot-boiler, the 1812 Overture.  The twentieth century saw the appearance of countless others including Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and Walton’s Portsmouth Point.

Incidentally, Malcolm Arnold wrote A Grand, Grand Overture in 1956 which is a hilariously vulgar spoof on the heroic concert overtures of the late nineteenth century. It’s scored for an enormous orchestra with organ, three Hoover vacuum cleaners, an electric floor polisher and four rifles. In contrast, these two lively overtures are operatic overtures but they’ve become popular concert pieces in their own right. 

Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904-1987): Overture to Colas Breugnon. New England Conservatory Philharmonia cond. Andrew Litton (Duration: 05:42; Video: 1080p HD)

This was the first piece I heard through a pair of stereo headphones when I was about twenty-two. It sounded wonderful at the time and still sounds a fresh as ever.  The sizzling opening section is tricky to bring off successfully and there are several other recordings on YouTube in which the ensemble is all over the place. Not so with these students from the New England Conservatory who give a thoroughly professional performance. 

Kabalevsky was a prolific composer of piano music and made a significant impact on Russian music education. Like Glinka, little of his work is known in the West with the exception perhaps of the Third Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto.  This really is a shame for he wrote some wonderful works including four piano concertos and four symphonies. This overture is from his three-act opera Colas Breugnon, written between 1936 and 1938 and based on a novel by the French dramatist, novelist, essayist, art historian and mystic, Romain Rolland.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): Overture to Candide. Symphony Orchestra of Galicia cond. Leonard Slatkin (Duration: 04:41; Video: 480p)

In case you’d forgotten (or possible never knew) Galicia is an autonomous community in Spain which lies in the farthest north-west corner of the country just north of Portugal. Go any further north-west and you’d be sloshing about in the Atlantic Ocean. The orchestra, under the distinguished American conductor gives a superb performance of this Bernstein classic and I enjoyed it more than that the famous one by Bernstein himself with the London Symphony.

Perhaps best known for his opera West Side Story, Bernstein was also an author, music lecturer, and brilliant pianist. Music critic Donal Henahan, claimed that Bernstein was “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.” His operetta Candide was first performed in 1956 and based on the novella of the same name written almost exactly two hundred years earlier by the French writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire.

The overture is a lively and engaging work with a catchy opening theme which gives way to a passionate melody (01:24) that recurs triumphantly later in the work. This theme has a wonderfully fluid quality produced by using alternate bars of two and three beats. The overture combines energy, delight, passion and vulgarity and the exciting Rossini-style crescendo (04:57) drives this heart-warming work to a satisfying conclusion.


June 30, 2018 - July 6, 2018

Portable, but only just

  

Cellist Fermín Villanueva. (Photo/Dirk Brzoska)

One day, when I was about thirteen and walking with my classmates in orderly fashion along the school corridor, we passed the Headmaster, who always stood at the same junction during lesson changes when almost the entire school was on the move. As I passed him, I was tapped on the shoulder and a magisterial voice announced, “Kaye, I think you should learn the cello.” When you are thirteen you don’t argue with the school dog let alone the Headmaster, so learn the cello I did.

At first I was taught by a large and kindly lady who kept her cello in a tattered canvas bag and had a penchant for voluminous dresses which rendered her feet invisible. She would float imperiously along the school corridors like a Spanish galleon in full sail, followed by a vapour trail of stale beer fumes, for she was also the proprietress of a local pub.

You need to have a certain determination to learn the cello. It’s portable, but only just and it can be awkward to carry on to buses and trains. As a teenager I developed the useful skill of riding my pedal bicycle and carrying the cello under one arm, though these days I don’t think I could do either.

The cello - or the violoncello to use its full name - has always played an important role in the orchestra. In many 18th century compositions the cellos merely chug along with the double basses, but by the early 19th century, composers had become more adventurous and gave the cello more interesting parts to play.

Few solo concertos were written for the cello before the 19th century. Perhaps the playing technique had not developed sufficiently for the technical demands of a concerto. Whatever the reason, the cello didn’t come into prominence as a solo instrument until the notable concertos by Schumann (1850), Saint-Saëns (1872), Lalo (1876) and Dvořák (1894). Even so, compared to the vast number of violin concertos, those for the cello are pretty thin on the ground.

Édouard Lalo (1823-1892): Cello Concerto in D minor. Fermín Villanueva (vlc), Romanian Radio National Orchestra, cond. Gabriel Bebe elea (Duration: 34:10, Video: 1080p HD)

When you think of French composers, Lalo (LAH-loh) is probably not the first name that springs to mind. He’s probably best known for his Symphonie Espagnole, a popular work for violin and orchestra. His cello concerto dates from 1876 and sounds as though parts of it were written by Schumann, for Lalo had a rather Germanic style.

This splendid performance is given by the charismatic Spanish cellist Fermín Villanueva who was born in 1993 in Pamplona, also the birthplace of the legendary violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Fermin studied at the Higher School of Music of the Basque Country and later at prestigious universities in Leipzig and Vienna. He has been awarded numerous prizes in national and international competitions and has performed with many European orchestras. The German cellist, Peter Bruns, recently wrote “Fermín is a very gifted and advanced cellist with highly-developed instrumental technique as well as with a wide range of mental, stylistic and musical skills to express his musical ideas on the cello.”

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Cello Concerto No 1 Op 107. Sheku Kanneh-Mason (vlc), BBC Symphony Orchestra cond. Mark Wigglesworth (Duration: 31.27, Video: 720p HD)

This concerto is considered one of the most difficult works written for the cello and was composed for the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who evidently committed it to memory in four days. This is a remarkable feat because most musicians would require four months at the very least.

Composed in 1959, it famously opens with four notes played on the solo cello answered by the woodwind. There are echoes of this motif throughout the concerto which is cast in four movements though the last three are played without a break. The second movement is in complete contrast to the energetic first one. The music is forlorn and yearning, full of harmonic tension and the melody played entirely on the cello harmonics adds an unworldly, ethereal quality. The third movement is an unaccompanied cadenza which transforms from a reflective mood into a frenzy of activity leading into the bizarre angular opening theme of the last movement.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason was born 1999 and started learning the cello at the age of six. When he was seventeen, he won the coveted 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year award.  Since then his international career has rocketed and he’s already booked for appearances with some of the top orchestras in Europe and America. Sheku incredibly talented and gives a superbly musical performance of this difficult work. Try to ignore the inane chatter from the TV commentator who really ought to know by now when to keep her mouth shut.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Made in England

Merry Overtures

Portable, but only just
 

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