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Showing posts with label Ralph Vaughan Williams. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ralph Vaughan Williams. Show all posts

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Seraphin Chamber Orchestra : Whilst you're alive, playing to hear live

This reviews the second concert by Seraphin Chamber Orchestra, under Joy Lisney

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

21 May

This is a review of the second concert given by Seraphin Chamber Orchestra, in the chapel of King’s College on Sunday 21 May 2017 at 8.00 p.m., in a programme of works by Vaughan Williams, Mozart and Dvořák, conducted by Joy Lisney

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) ~ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (RVW) as conductor

There, in the first chord (and at which one could smile contentedly), was established the spirit of Vaughan Williams – and the King’s chapel-bell, a regular at concerts, chimed eight o’clock without one’s having a care in the world. With a well-defined, slower tempo than is much heard, Joy Lisney enhanced the luminosity of tremolo-infused beauteous calm that is part of RVW at his best.

At ebb of tide, think not the sea is faithless ;
It will return with love unto the shore.

‘Love’s Ebb and Flow’ ~ Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy

When we heard a crescendo, it was proportionate to the piece, and, by making us wait for moments that we love well - both by pacing and the use of rallentando - Joy respectfully disrupted¹ our merely expecting to experience what we already knew : in this way, as she had done in Seraphin Chamber Orchestra’s initial concert, she and the orchestra somewhat teased us (almost - if one may - as a sexual partner might ?), to give the familiar back to us, but better.

So, when the four principals² began separating from within the texture of the ensemble and coming to the fore, a tear formed, and there was a full emotional response to appreciating the dimension of two orchestras, which are used so differently from how Michael Tippett does in his lovely Concerto for Double String Orchestra (responding, amongst other things, to English madrigals of the seventeenth century as, in that era, RVW is - inter alia - to Corelli (1653-1713)).

We did not stay in this realm, though, since the composer has the effect of vibrancy drop away, and instead presents us with somewhat mysterious and heavy-laden chords and modulations (though the harmonic language may always been implicit when he presents long, sustained notes at the beginning of the work ?). Even so, the glorious main theme is allowed to re-emerge, with the voice of the leader, alongside soft pizzicato, and Joy here brought out a strong feeling of expectancy.

Then, the lightness and luminosity of the opening returned, with its concords, and a forceful quality to the string-sound. Vaughan Williams concludes with the strains of violin obbligato, superbly brought to us by Paula Muldoon (not, as advertised, Rachel Stroud), before another dropping away, and our due applause. (In this performance, one thought, for the first time, of the Epilogue (marked Moderato) of RVW's Symphony No. 6 in E Minor (and of his audio-preserved remark about Sir Adrian Boult's recording : might we, some day soon, be confidently hearing from Joy, with complete symphonic forces, in such a work ?)

Wolfgang Amadee³ Mozart (1756–1791) ~ Divertimento in D Major, K. 136 (1772)

1. Allegro

2. Andante

3. Presto

Delahaye's portrait of Mozart (1772), i.e. aged 16 years old

The latter part of the eighteenth century is another sound-world, but equally one that a conductor and orchestra co-create. However, in the opening Allegro of a fairly well-known work, there were notable differences : Joy had made sure that Mozart's ornamentation did not sound 'throwaway' (which was also a feature when we came to the Andante), and that the underlying bass-line was both not unheard, and did not seem unimportant in relation to the upper parts.

With a degree in music, and as a working composer, Joy had found other emphases to choose to make in this performance. For example, with the principal theme (and its iterations), she placed a little more stress on the first part of its outline, and then, in the second movement, she continued what we had heard with the Tallis Fantasia, shaping the phrasing to be maximally expressive. Thus, under her conductorship, Seraphin Chamber Orchestra (@SeraphinCO) took in the full grace of the Andante’s main theme, as well as that of its harmonization – Joy seemed to have let the natural measure of the score determine the exact tempo.

As so often with Mozart’s work, its suspensive or reflective qualities – which are at the core of the music – are to be found in the innermost moods of these slower movements. Again, the significance of trills, turns and slurs did not go unheeded, and so of giving effect to them somewhat differently : by not treating them simply as artefacts or conventions of the time when the work was written, Joy avoided the sort of playing that can seem to honour the spirit of Mozart’s compositions, but actually be more like superficial sheen - rather than very good reasons to listen to what he has to say.

Thus, in the concluding Presto, one can all too easily take the impression that the balanced nature of the material is either flippantly glib on the composer’s part, or play it as if it is just foursquare. Here, it was clear that it was neither, and, although the orchestra gave us nice, quick bowing, Joy – unlike with those who seem to view the marking Presto, as at an end-of-speed-limit sign, allowing them to indulge themselves – never made us feel rushed.

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) ~ Serenade in E Major, Opus 22 (1875)

1. Moderato

2. Tempo di Valse

3. Scherzo. Vivace

4. Larghetto

5. Finale. Allegro vivace

Dvořák, in 1891 - having received an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge

As with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, performed in Seraphin Chamber Orchestra’s first public performance (in mid-February 2017, and in the same venue), the concluding work, by Dvořák, contains movements that would be familiar just in their own right (such as the Tempo di Valse or the Larghetto, which are the second and fourth movements, respectively), whereas – except to someone who really knows the work as a whole – the opening Moderato will not be.

However, we can perceive how Joy, with assurance, is again shaping the musical material, and how, as she conducts, her fellow string-players respond to give her interpretative control (she also gives recitals as a cellist, and had played / directed a Haydn Concerto in the previous concert). In a way that, perhaps, we might associate more with Igor Stravinsky, or Michael Tippett, when Dvořák gives a reprise of the theme, we hear that he has a counter-melody in the second violins (after the premiere of Joy’s own ‘Thread of the Infinite’, Tippett's Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli had been played next, in the preceding weekend’s concert at West Road Concert Hall).

In the Tempo di Valse, in passages marked forte (or louder), Joy is giving us what has otherwise been carefully kept back in curating and punctuating the initial theme – just as, later, Dvořák himself prominently uses a fortissimo cadence as an emphatic way of marking the end of the first part of the movement. What we may have found - if we were not just hearing the music - is that Joy (to make it more effective) was alternating that full richness with employing restraint elsewhere. When Dvořák effected a transition to legato writing, Joy brought out a honeyed tone from the orchestra, with pizzicato on the cellos, and as a further use of clear and precise demarcations within the scope of the movement. After a rallentando, it concluded with a very definite full close.

The third movement (marked Scherzo. Vivace) has a different aspect altogether, which we felt in how Joy caused the ensemble to express intensity, and onward movement. In the slower sections, there was a feeling of suspense, from which we built back to the initial tempo, then, with some lovely pizzicato playing in the lower lines, and the melody held back (with a slight rallentando), the central section of the Serenade moved to an end. The Larghetto is quieter, and we heard tremolo, sensitively utilized by this versatile group of instrumentalists, as well as adeptly long bow-strokes. There was an attractive melody, written for cello, and then running arpeggios (marked to be played as triplets ?), and all of this conducted and played with charm and poise.

Lastly, as if the Finale's initial (and partly repeated) gesture had been ‘a wake-up call’ from Dvořák, his writing for the lower strings - which came across as lively and yet measured - led us to the loudest music that we had been exposed to all evening. More and more, the Allegro vivace resembled a dance-form (was what it had become a Furiant ?), with, at one point, another counter-melody before the fortissimo dynamic returned (fortississimo ?). After a deft piece of pizzicato playing from Christopher Xuereb, on double-bass, and as if Dvořák were still in a playful mood, he set up the expectation that the chords played were a closing cadence : it proved to be a false end, and, a few bars later, the work came to its proper conclusion.

In one undivided performance, another very agreeable, and highly accomplished, evening of music-making from Seraphin Chamber Orchestra (@SeraphinCO) and Joy Lisney (@JoyLisney) ! If those reading this review have not heard Joy or the orchestra before, make it your aim, with another Seraphin concert (to be announced) due in the autumn.

End-notes :

¹ The modern vogue for talking about disruptive technologies (or our reaction against this jargon, which would seem better applied to computer viruses and other malware) may make us assume that all disruption is (as one may see it) bad - or good. Yet it may depend on viewpoint whether subverting the commonplace (e.g. in art, to ask us what we assume or why), or minority shareholders or outside protestors stopping an AGM to make an ethical point. (With different prefixes, we also have corrupt, erupt, interrupt - a lexical root that gives rise to other words with strong meanings...)

² Paula Muldoon and Anita Monserrat (first and second violins, respectively), Roc Fargas i-Castells (viola), and Laura van der Heijden (cello).

³ So (on Radio 3’s The Listening Service) Tom Service (@tomservice) wishes to assert Mozart actually styled himself.

Leopold Mozart, his father, had certainly ensured Wolfgang's exposure to as much as possible of music and culture in Italy, as this map shows (from the Wikipedia® web-page Mozart in Italy) :

Mozart's travels in Italy (December 1769 to May 1771)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Nicholas Collon conducts at Cambridge Corn Exchange

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

23 May

Apologies that, at the time of the Vaughan-Williams-focused preview of this concert at Cambridge’s Corn Exchange (@CambridgeCornEx), it was overlooked that The Royal Philarmonic Orchestra (@rpoonline) is the Orchestra in Residence.

Under the baton of rising conductor Nicholas Collon (increasingly guesting with big orchestras, as well continuing The Aurora Orchestra), we had a programme of Britten, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams. (And the RPO return next season with highlights such as Stravinsky’s Suite* from The Firebird, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2…)

Four Sea Interludes – Benjamin Britten

The programme note tells us that Britten resembled Stravinsky*, in conducting the Interludes as a separate entity days after Peter Grimes’ premiere.

Titled ‘Dawn’, ‘Sunday Morning’, ‘Moonlight’, and ‘Storm’, they evoke not only moods, which crucially punctuate the opera, but also a location in time and space : Collon was wisely unhurried with ‘Dawn’, not led on by its beautiful surface appeal, and getting an unfussy, clean, but sweet, sound from the RPO – allowing the resonant brass and rumble, as of swell, both to contrast with the rest of the ensemble, and come together.

In the next portrait, the cross-beats and near-dissonances were a delight, with the chromatic slide excitingly brought off, and filling the moment both with energy, and that trio of bell-notes, doom, and dread. ‘Moonlight’ was again controlled, daringly awaiting those fresh piercings of light from space : yet the xylophone that – with the harp – captures them ends with tortured motifs against the strings.

Finally, Collon built not the noisiest ‘Storm’, but with the strong natural suggestion of possibly going higher. He brought out the laughter in the brass, and ended crisply and exactly. A refreshing first course !

Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85 – Edward Elgar

Another work (as the symphony is) in four movements, but a good contrast with the Britten, because of the different emotive qualities of the solo cello part, not least under Guy Johnston (who was playing because of Julian Lloyd Webber’s unlucky forced retirement), who, amongst other things, expressively brought to this well-known work :

* Pacing, and an inward interpretation, of the first main theme, but reaching out for brighter things, and bring it back with electricity

* Unforced string-tone, and a plaintive, guitaristic feel to plucking strings

* A teasing tremolo, as if of a young animal playing

* A lightness of touch in sustained passage-work

* Singing, not shouting, the famous melody-line, with Johnston leaning into the instrument, as if hearing the music within it

* Moments of quiet, leading to a different mode of projection, where some single notes just spoke volumes

* The physicality, and swaying, of playing after a theme that felt full of weariness and preoccupation

* A sense of rumination, and ending with a voice resolved to follow its own counsel before reprising the main theme and a momentary tutti at the close

Symphony No. 3 [no stated key, and first entitled A Pastoral Symphony] – Ralph Vaughan Williams

At the outset, a light, floral feel is weighted by the bass, then joined by Vaughan Williams’ beloved obbligato violin. Nicely balanced playing and phrasing suggested the magical, yet tinged with something indefinably other. Collon ran the first two movements together, which, when the Molto moderato ends (after sensations of a gently drifting swell) with the moving, plangent reediness of the oboe, makes sense for introducing the horn sonority.

In the strings, Collon brought out hesitancy, uncertainty, which developed into an uneasy sense of anxiety. Whatever exactly the trumpet calls may mean, the pianissimo was pregnant, and reminded of the composer’s words (describing Boult’s conducting**) : it was a positive, sensitive pianissimo, full of meaning and tension.

Next, the Moderato pesante seems to break through the tension, rising to its lovely main theme, but Collon held course, allowing no slackness in the brass theme (accompanied by cymbals). Gloriously sonorous brass intervals then heralded the carol-like coda.

For the Lento finale, Collon had soprano Sally Harrison placed off stage, singing wordlessly in an unshowy but haunting way. After the well-located harp melody came feelings of richness, an excitement that gave way to tenderness, revisiting previous themes, and a soaring sense of pride. The song recurred, and the strings faded away.

However many knew this work, people seemed both quietly attentive to it and appreciative of the RPO and Collon’s skill.


* Though unclear whether it is that from 1911, 1919, or 1945 (as Stravinsky, as an ambitious composer, was forever making arrangements).

** The final movement of Symphony No. 6.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

By way of an introduction to Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 3 (originally A Pastoral Symphony)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

22 May

Cambridge Corn Exchange is to be praised for giving us, in Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 3 to-night, something out of the ordinary. For, despite Sir Adrian Boult’s still impressive recordings*, and championing by Andrew Manze (such as Boult did : he premiered this work) with Symphonies 4 to 6 at The Proms two years ago (and previously with The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra), the knowledge of Vaughan Williams is not, where it should be, in people’s minds, and the music in their hearts.

The works speak for themselves, if given the opportunity, and it is the composers whose reputation needs championing, in fact. But we must beware of switching one orthodoxy about what was originally called A Pastoral Symphony (and, as with A London Symphony, only numbered later, as well as not seeming to be expressed to be in any key), which is now that it is a form of relection on war :

Perhaps we did not know, as Martin Furber’s brief sleeve-notes for the CD release of the Boult recording* tell us, that Vaughan Williams had served in France, and that it was there, in 1916, that he first made sketches for the symphony (A London Symphony had been first performed in 1914). The question is : does it add to, or detract from, the symphony to try to connect it to the war, since Vaughan Williams had stated that its predecessor was absolute music, and in 1920 suggested, in a prgramme note, that it might better be called Symphony by a Londoner.

By all means, we want to listen to what broadcaster Stephen Johnson says that he has researched about Vaughan Williams and his time, but, most of all, we want to listen to the music…

So here is a suggestion for those new to this symphony. If one had to pick out an instrument that is redolent of each of the symphony’s four movements (although Vaughan Williams always loves trombones and writes stunningly well for solo violin) they would be, respectively, oboe, trumpet, flute and harp (as well as human voice). See the contributions being made by each instrumentalist (vocalist) at the time, and hear where they fit into the whole, both the whole of the movement, and of the accruing piece, and what Vaughan Williams is expressing by them.

Listen hard, though, for Wikipedia informs us that ‘It is scored for a large orchestra including:

* Woodwinds: 3 flutes (3rd doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets (in B♭ and A; 3rd doubling on bass clarinet), 2 bassoons

* Brass: 4 horns (in F), 3 trumpets (in C, 1 doubling on natural Trumpet in E♭), 3 trombones, tuba

* Percussion: timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, celesta,

* Strings: harp, and strings.'

There is now an outline review of the concert, too, here


* The one of this symphony, from 1952, with soprano Margaret Ritchie providing the wordless solo in the last movement and The London Philharmonic Orchestra takes some beating. Boult had given the premiere thirty years earlier (on 16 January 1922).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Morten and Eric

This piece is about Shining Night : A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen (2012)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

3 March

This piece is about Shining Night : A Portrait of Composer Morten Lauridsen (2012)

Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen are huge names in the sacred choral music tradition in America.

To-day, on a Sunday afternoon, the latter is in Cambridge, conducting a rehearsal just now before a screening of Shining Night (2012), a new film about him at 4.00, complete with a Q&A with the director and him. (Later, the concert for which the rehearsal.)

There may be more relevant and compelling things to ask in the wake of the film, but my question, as presently envisaged, is:

If you agree that certain composers have a distinctive voice or sound, is it fair to characterize that as their harmonic language, and, if so, what are the elements in your harmonic language are of which you are aware, and, if not, how would you describe what makes your compositions yours ?

Michael Stillwater's film gave an affectionate appreciation of Lauridsen the man, the composer, and the participant in rehearsals where his work is being performed, as well as of Waldron Island in Washington, where he lives part of each year, looking across to Canada. Certain messages, apart from the power and cohesiveness of the work, came across very clearly :

* Lauridsen is almost a poet in his approach to composition, as well as a sociological and historical scholar in putting the texts that he sets in context

* Indeed, as he revealed in the Q&A, he reads poetry every day, and begins every class at university with a poem (and the opportunity for others to share poetry)

* He is quite aware of musical language, and so, in setting O magnum mysterium, says that he did not want anything to interpose itself between the text and the hearer

* He alluded to a wealth of notes 'discarded' to get 'the right ones'

* The natural world and the silence of where he chooses to live are supremely important to him

* The sense, as he later confirmed, of being a private person, but one who feels deeply for history, for those who will hear his compositions, and for those who sing them, having deliberately made Lux Aeterna within the capability of choirs of competent singers, rather than just highly skilled ensembles

* Having to pawn one of his two instruments or his typewriter to get by, he had not had things easy in early days

Initially, Lauridsen answered questions from two members of the music society at Queens' (his hosts that day).

When I got to ask a question, I asked whether being front of the camera and talking about himself had felt intrusive - in a very long answer, he was quick to say (and quite defensive in saying so) that he is used to talking in public as a university teacher. However, the fact remains that there was at least one moment that Michael Stillwater had caught on camera in his documentary where Lauridsen looked choked by what he was remembering or talking about.

What I had wanted to know was whether Stillwater had had to do anything to make the experience easier for Lauridsen, especially at those moments, but he wanted to suggest that he was not even aware of the camera.

He said that, when he had responded to Stillwater's approach to make a film, he had freely invited Stillwater to film him in rehearsals and performances, first in California, then in Scotland, but it sounded as though he hoped that he would not have to be filmed on his retreat in Washington, in an unquestionably beautiful location that Stillwater's cinematography showed to good effect (despite the limitations of the digital capture of certain qualities and characters of light).

Stillwater was equally clear that he had felt - rightly - that, in effect, the heart of the film would have been missing without Waldron. Good for overcoming both Lauridsen's reluctance, and for making the presence of the crew a happy one for other residents !

As for whether one is with those such as Giles Swayne who do not regard Lauridsen as 'a real composer', I believe that how one views his work is a matter of opinion, but that his conviction and integrity when it comes to what he views as important in life and in his work (inseparable as they may be) come across and deserve not to be denied.