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Showing posts with label SeraphinCO. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SeraphinCO. 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)

Monday, 13 February 2017

Seraphin Chamber Orchestra played in King's College Chapel, conducted by Joy Lisney

This reviews a concert given 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)

12 February

This is a review of an inaugural concert given by Seraphin Chamber Orchestra in the chapel of King’s College on Sunday 12 February 2017 at 8.00 p.m., in a programme of works by Haydn and Tchaikovsky, and including a world premiere by Benjamin Graves, conducted by cellist Joy Lisney

Benjamin Graves (199?) (@BenjaminHGraves) ~ Three Folk Songs for String Orchestra (2017) (World premiere)

It is almost inevitable with modern compositions that one either runs out of sections, and has to reappraise whether what seemed like a pause delineated any more than a long rest, or the piece ends, when one is expecting more… (It was the latter, but no matter.)

I confess that this was my experience when Joy gave Benjamin Britten’s Suite for Cello No. 3 at Kings Place (@KingsPlace), a piece that I do not know well, and which one can hear and see Joy playing then here (on YouTube) :

The start of the work had aetherial, ancient tones, with subtle pulsings in the midst, and it felt that we were looking to ‘Max’ (Peter Maxwell Davies) with the use of layering, and of radiant and discordant elements. When we heard the leader with obbligato violin, alongside tremolo effects that shimmered, this was perhaps where the second Folk Song began :

At any rate, there was ‘a rise’, as of cavorting seals (it becomes hackneyed to talk too much about keening, but there was that about it). Probably the third of the Folk Songs began with rhythmicity, and ‘banjo-style’ cellos, and one appreciated the effect of divided first and second violins, and the move in and out of the minor, but all with a regal air. However, although we appeared to come to a sonority, the piece did not quite end on it, but with other-worldly qualities and effects.

The element of surprise… caught the audience by surprise, but the skill and care of Seraphin Chamber Orchestra (@SeraphinCO) in this composition was easily recognizable, and heralded a full hour of accomplishment and finely conveyed emotion under Joy Lisney’s (@JoyLisney’s) baton (or, in what followed, direction from the cello).

Josef Haydn (1732-1809) ~ Concerto for Cello in D Major, Op. 101, Hob. VIIIb : 2

1. Allegro moderato

2. Adagio

3. Allegro

Not that one would expect the opening Allegro moderato to be disrespectful, but this was treating ‘Papa’ Haydn with initial reverential respect, against which we could accord and register the flourishes on oboes and horns. Then, Joy signalled a boost in the orchestra’s volume, and we gained a sense of the echoic nature of Haydn’s writing.

In Joy's approach to his solo melody-line and its ornamentation, its beauty was paramount, and we could then, as the movement developed, appreciate the crispness of Christopher Xuereb on bass. From Joy, this was a gracious performance, with her facility at the service of bringing freshness to the interpretation. At times, she would wait, as the rest of the ensemble had a tutti passage, and she could no doubt have been content at the very great competence of Seraphin Chamber Orchestra, with its balanced and fully confident sound. We could next movingly see her feeling her way, and, come the cadenza (which one guesses may have been Joy’s own, thematically-oriented one), there was a real quiet in the chapel of King’s College, before the orchestra joined her for the close : there was not showiness here, but an appropriate response to the mood and style of Haydn’s work.

The Adagio had an understated opening, and we then heard the plangency of the oboes. Joy herself was exercising restraint as to being expressive at this stage, and then a moment of sweetness came forth – taking the simplicity in the melody-line at face value, with its honesty and clarity. In the cadenza, there were singing notes, and colours that allowed the ensemble to come quietly back in : this is not the Concerto in which to wring every essence of the Adagio for feeling, but one where its content and purpose are to serve the faster movements.

Joy allowed the closing Allegro to luxuriate in the rich loveliness of the writing, with its feel of a rondo, and horn-calls. She was clearly working very well with the orchestra, whose rehearsals had been much publicized on Twitter (at @SeraphinCO), and enjoying the pleasure of this finale. Haydn briefly modulates to the minor, and Joy, either side of highly proficient runs, brought out some momentarily forceful bowing to match the atmosphere. A brief moment of hearing the oboes without the solo voice, and then the delightful and well-received conclusion of the work, full of energy and life.

Those who knew the work, and its demands, would have called Joy back more than twice in reacting to this work, but the applause was generous for what one judged the composition of the audience to be (and, likewise when the time came, the Tchaikovsky could have been acclaimed for longer, and the impressive quality of this playing in a notoriously demanding acoustic).

Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) ~ Serenade for Strings, Op. 48 (1880)

1. Pezzo in forma di sonatina : Andante non troppo — Allegro moderato

2. Valse : Moderato — Tempo di valse

3. Élégie : Larghetto elegiaco

4. Finale (Tema russo) : Andante — Allegro con spirito

The opening statement was well paced, and had its necessary clarity, with Joy showing that it was not sufficient to play this music, but for it to speak and to unfold. There was some difficult cello-writing here, for example, but Seraphin Chamber Orchestra had assurance, and a good bass-line, as well as a clear string-sound : their conductor was confident, and appeared to be giving them confidence. With the reprise of the opening gestures, there was a good balance, which we were to notice further, as the Serenade continued.

The movement marked Valse seemed essentially carefree, but only mildly jaunty, and Joy made good use of ritardando for punctuation : with a work such as this, which we think that we know, but where we actually cannot place some parts of it, we need holding back, for our pleasure, in the familiar moments. Joy’s beating of time was gentle and leisurely.

In the Élégie, she had the orchestra carefully present the initial material, and slowly using its measures for expressivity : for it is here, if anywhere in the Serenade, that Tchaikovsky is likely to feel unknown to us, and we need shape and structure most then, not for a conductor to let it drift.

With the first violins against pizzicato strings, we began a gradual build, and then time to decelerate and to breathe. Again and again, Joy paced this movement, and brought us to a lovely hush, as of dying embers. Still aglow, the Larghetto was still being given due weight, and then gradually we came into a coda, with a pulse, and simple scales, to conclude.

The Finale (Tema russo) was in this same, quiet place, but more solemn, with Joy taking it steadily, and making us come again to this music, which was now familiar (in the way that our selective attention, or our listening that has been directed to what we know, the Élégie is relatively uncertain for us). Yes, we came into a little fizz and fireworks, but there was more to it than that, and Joy showed, again, that she had a sense of vision for this piece. After some luscious writing for her fellow cellists, we ended as we had begun, but with the theme’s statement now having greater poise and purpose…

Now reviewed here, the ensemble's second concert (as above), also in this venue

Just one thing that could possibly have different : especially last year, when concerts during Easter at King’s were held at the West end (and especially with period instruments), the work of a cold building on strings was noticeable. Just maybe, after the third movement of the Serenade for Strings, taking a chance to re-tune might have been worthwhile ?

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