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January - March
2018

Holloway the Progressive

Peter Seabourne

Robin Holloway

As this extraordinary, rebellious anti-rebel reaches his 75th year, past-pupil Peter Seabourne surveys his output.

As a callow young man, I recall vividly the first one-to-one encounter with my new composition teacher, Robin Holloway. He was standing under an old yew tree outside his Cambridge home, eating berries. "Try these!" he said, "it's only the pip that's poisonous - they taste like pink clouds!" Somehow both description and intent are appropriate to Robin's work and aesthetics: whilst dallying with the peril within, he has dared to savour the exotic fruit surrounding it ...and found it good.

How to characterise a composer whose very essence resists this? For years he was reviled by the avant-garde as a reactionary, stirring up the muddy swamp of the past, flying in the face of, as it was infamously put, "the needs of his epoch". General perceptions, whether loving or loathing, centre firmly around his expansive Romantic gestures, lush and exotic harmony, arabesque-laden textures, and re-engagement with tonality (with that seditious but seductive triad). Has there been an orchestrator like him since Strauss?

And yet, facing diametrically the other way, are modernist traits: fragment-dominated musical argument; quirkily irregular use of rhythm; controlled player-independence; a-thematic movements; an ambiguous cohabitation of tonality and atonality, both interacting and mutually repelling; and a non-sequential melting pot of ideas, sometimes apparently spewed out almost at random before organically and ingeniously coalescing.

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The Future of Music

David Matthews

Dacvid Smiley

This is a problematic time for music in this country, both classical (which is the word I’m going to have to use to describe the kind of music that I write) and popular. I’ll start with a few simple observations. When I was young in the 1950s and 60s, classical music was an integral part of the general culture. Most people were familiar with the popular classics, which were broadcast not just on the élite Third Programme, later to become the rather less élite Radio 3, but also on the Home Service, now Radio 4, and even the Light Programme, now Radio 2. If you listen, for example, to the 1950s Goon Show, which is regularly rebroadcast on Radio 4 Extra, you’ll hear numerous references to classical music, which I think would be largely unintelligible to most of the general public today. This situation has come about because of the replacement of classical music in most people’s lives by the all-powerful culture of pop, which began in a seemingly innocent way in the mid 1950s when rock and roll was introduced, personified by such figures as Elvis Presley and Little Richard.

As a boy growing up in a not especially musical family in the 1950s, I’d learned the piano since the age of seven, passed my Grade Five exams in piano and theory and attended quite a few symphony concerts. But along with most of my generation, I was as a young teenager enthralled by this wildly exciting music, to the extent that I lost interest in classical music for three years. The commercial possibilities of this new popular music were so enormous that it became a huge industry, which now pervades most people’s lives – the majority of teenagers and many older people too are rarely seen without their headphones.

 

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Peter Hall – the opera director who got away

An appreciation by David Patmore

Peter Hall

In the autumn of 1970 I moved as a stage manager from the English Opera Group (EOG) to the Royal Opera Company (ROC). I had just completed two seasons with the EOG following post-university training as a stage manager at the London Opera Centre. The three organisations were all managed by the Royal Opera House, with a lot of institutional overlap. The EOG was basically Benjamin Britten’s personal opera company: productions were carefully prepared by leading British directors of the time such as Colin Graham, John Copley and Anthony Besch, all of whom had long experience of working within the post-war British operatic tradition. But now I was to encounter a style of stage direction of a radically different kind.

After several weeks of working on traditional revivals of ‘Cav and Pag’, ‘Carmen’ and ‘Arabella’, we began rehearsals at the beginning of November 1970 of Michael Tippett’s ‘The Knot Garden’, conducted by Colin Davis and produced by Peter Hall. Hall’s previous operatic productions had included Schoenberg’s ‘Moses un Aron’, also at Covent Garden in 1965 and conducted by Georg Solti, a slightly less successful stab at ‘Die Zauberflöte’, again at Covent Garden with Solti in 1966, and Cavalli’s ‘La Calisto’ presented at Glyndebourne during the summer of 1970 in an edition prepared by the conductor Raymond Leppard. These productions had generally been well received, the Schoenberg in particular receiving front page coverage in the popular press through its use of Soho strippers in the orgy scene.

 

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All the Way to Snape and Back

Harpist Brian Wilson recalls his early introduction to Britten

Brian Wilson

The curlews began calling whilst I was a chorister at Liverpool Cathedral where the language of Britten’s music seemed to speak to me in a most direct manner.  The Festival Te Deum was sung regularly and after I became a member of the Choristers’ Guild and my voice changed, I heard rehearsals of what I discovered was A Ceremony of Carols. I was hooked. The fact that a harp stood in the Guild clubroom enabled me to experiment in trying to pick, or should I say pluck, the opening chords of ‘Wolcum Yole’, only to be discovered by the probationers’ choirmaster who suggested that I learn to play the instrument properly. Thanks to Mair Jones, then the impeccable harpist of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, I was able to act upon his suggestion and the journey towards Aldeburgh began. 

En route, stimulated by the singing of Aldeburgh regulars such as Jennifer Vyvyan, Norma Procter and Peter Pears, whom  I heard at the Philharmonic Hall, I explored all of Britten’s operas: vocal scores were accessible thanks to the excellent music section of the Central Library in Liverpool. It was just possible to make it there and back to Liverpool Institute High School for Boys during the lunch-hour and take scores home. I would then sing all the parts, male and female, ploughing through the reduced orchestral score at the same time. This had a positive impact on my sight reading from that moment onwards and I well remember the satisfaction of hearing Gloriana, which I knew well from the vocal score, come to life at the 50th Concert in the Royal Festival Hall.

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Aspects of Sibelius

Sibelius

Edward Clark

From little acorns do mighty oak trees grow.

Never a truer word has been said than describing the process adopted (in his own words “forged”) by Sibelius in his Fifth Symphony. The gift of the conductor is to make plausible the transport of the music from the pregnant opening to the resplendent majesty heard at the end. Sakari Oramo certainly did not linger in this time journey, keeping a sharp eye on all the necessary sign posts Sibelius offers us. He achieved truly wonderful, authoritative playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra who followed his occasional forays into a more relaxed mood in the delightful (and often underestimated) middle movement.

This performance launched Oramo’s Sibelius cycle at the Barbican Hall on September 27. There were plenty of innovations and ambiguities on display; the change from the opening half of the first movement to the scherzo-style second half was wonderfully achieved with the same time beat unchanged despite the difference in tempo. It was this innovation that inspired Peter Maxwell Davies in his First Symphony (1976/77) and through which, in turn, changed critical thinking towards Sibelius from him being an anachronistic figure of little relevance to a true master capable of new ideas that inspire modern day composers of a high calibre.

 

 

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On Recording Wolf-Ferrari's Violin Concerto

Francesca Dego

Francesca Dego

The distinguished violinist writes on discovering a rarely-heard work and her approach to recording it in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.

I love how nowadays one has the luxury of choosing an optimal acoustic to capture every shade of a performance as if in a recording studio. Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, arguably the U.K.’s finest concert hall with its plethora of moveable acoustic panels, delivers just that. It’s ideal.

It inspires you to dig deep into your instrument but also lets the sound soar and envelop you completely. There is nothing constructed or added in the warmth of the tone and being able to make the most of this during a recording is pure bliss. I’ve always tried to record in natural acoustics because I think they simply make you play better; for me it’s almost impossible to recreate the same emotion and atmosphere in a lifeless soundproofed box.

For the Paganini/Wolf-Ferrari project I have finally experienced recording with an orchestra. It is in fact my debut Concerto disc for Deutsche Grammophon, following Paganini’s 24 Caprices for solo violin and Beethoven’s complete sonatas for violin and piano in three volumes with my longtime duo partner Francesca Leonardi. I found it daunting, but also exciting, as for the first time I perceived how it felt to completely depend on the producer, recording team, conductor and orchestra for the final result. For my previous recordings I felt in control of every minute and every detail, discussed musical and technical issues with the producer but ultimately calculated my strength and paced the sessions according to my needs.

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A New Chamber Music Series Launched in London

Warren Mailley-Smith

Warren Mailley-Smith

With a special offer for readers of ‘Musical Opinion’, the pianist-director of this new series outlines the ethos of the planned concerts.

In 2015/16 I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to perform the complete works of Chopin at St Johns Smith Square. It was both a hugely rewarding and exhausting experience. I was stretched to the limits of my mental and physical capacity and the process definitely helped me to develop as an artist. Certainly a project of such dimensions doesn’t come without a few sacrifices and above all I really missed collaborating with other musicians during this period. The preparation and performance of 11 separate recital programmes is a very enriching experience, but it does also require a lot of solitary confinement with a necessary absence of musical collaboration and exchange of ideas. Whilst us pianists tend to be reclusive animals by nature, this can only be a healthy thing up to a point! Needless to say, it was refreshing indeed to renew musical partnerships when the solo series reached its conclusion in the summer of 2016.

On a separate, but related theme, in recent years, I have found myself coaching regularly on various Chamber Music Courses at Pro Corda International Chamber Music School, covering a range of repertoire in a hugely inspiring setting, with some of the brightest young talents in the country.

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