Friday, November 26, 2010

Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

26 November 2010

A brief history of brass instruments: if you take any narrow metal tube or pipe, open at both ends, put one end to your lips and blow you can produce a musical note. The tighter you press your lips together and the harder you blow the higher the note will be. With most metal tubes you will be able to produce a limited number of different musical notes, based on the frequencies at which the tube will naturally resonate. The longer the tube the more notes will be possible, but even with a very long tube there will be a limit to which notes can be produced – enough for a fanfare but missing the notes in between that you would need to play most melodies. The precise notes available will vary depending on the length of the tube.

One early solution was to create a detachable section of tube that could be removed from the middle of the instrument and replaced with a similar section of a slightly different length. The early version of what we now call the French horn (which is a very long tube curled up to make it portable-enough to play on horseback) used this system of detachable ‘crooks’. But it was not possible to swap crooks fast enough to play a continuous tune requiring notes from the different crooks. A quicker way of altering the overall length of the tube was to create a sliding ‘crook’ that could be moved in or out while playing to vary the total length of the instrument, leading to the development of the trombone.

The alternative was to permanently attach several ‘crooks’ of various lengths to the instrument and create a system of valves to redirect the air through the appropriate pipes as required to make particular notes available to the player. The modern trumpet uses three vertical valves that, when pressed, channel the air through a second set of pipes from those used by default. Combining all three valves creates seven different possible total lengths for the air to travel through, providing the player with access to every possible note.

The modern French horn uses a similar system of valves, except that they rotate to change the direction of the air (rather than moving up and down as on a trumpet). Most horns have levers for the player to press which are attached to the rotary valves by ‘strings’ (thin nylon twine) which pull the valves round to the relevant position.

The reason I’m telling you all this is to set the scene for the Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert I played in last Saturday. The concert opened with the ‘Peer Gynt Suite No. 1’ by Grieg, followed by the Miaskovsky ‘Cello Concerto. Russian composer Nikolai Miaskovsky was a contemporary of Rachmaninov and wrote in a late-romantic style. His ‘cello concerto, written in 1944, is an interesting piece that was completely new to me – a little rambling, maybe, but with some lovely tunes. With the Milton Keynes Sinfonia’s conductor, David Knight, being an extremely accomplished ‘cellist himself, it was no surprise that the soloist he had chosen was something special: German-born ‘cellist Julian Metzger gave an outstanding performance.

I was only involved in the second half of the concert, in which we played Tchaikovsky’s mighty final work, the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony No 6. My role was ‘bumping’ the first horn part, ie doubling the first horn to allow the principal horn player to save himself, in this mammoth stamina-sapping work, for the more delicate solo passages. It started well, but shortly into the second of the four movements of the symphony I heard a snapping sound and realised that the string on my third valve had broken. This made the third valve unusable: replacing the string is a fiddly procedure and not one I was going to be able to accomplish in the middle of a concert, so I resigned myself to having to play the rest of the piece without using the third valve. Fortunately, the third valve is probably the least used but it was still a considerable mental challenge to calculate which notes I could play with an alternative fingering and which I would have to omit entirely – as well as a challenge of physical dexterity, particularly during the faster passages, to make sure I didn’t automatically revert to the familiar fingering patterns. All this made for a nerve-wracking forty minutes. I was fortunate that I was doubling the first horn part and was not the only player responsible for producing those notes. The fact that, after we had finished the performance the principal horn player, David Lack, said he hadn’t noticed my predicament suggests that I got away with it!

The ‘Pathétique’ Symphony is a very emotional piece: the third movement is a brilliant march with a magnificent ending that sounds like it should be the climax of the whole work. Most audiences burst into applause at this point – and our audience in Milton Keynes was no exception – leaving the heart-breakingly beautiful fourth movement to shatter the joy and lead us inevitably into despair. I was amused to discover that, in the tense, silent moments after the last note of the symphony, as orchestra and audience held its collective breath before relaxing into applause, one member of the audience was heard to say "I loved the Tchaikovsky, but what was that funny piece they played as an encore?".

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Thursday, November 18, 2010

‘La Cenerentola’ by Glyndebourne on Tour

18 November 2010

Regular readers may have spotted that I am not a very frequent opera-goer. I think the last full opera I saw was a production of Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ in Peterborough in about 1996. But, aware of this gap in our cultural landscape, we took the opportunity of the visit of Glyndebourne on Tour to Milton Keynes Theatre last week to dip our toes in the operatic water. We went to see Peter Hall’s production of ‘La Cenerentola’ by Rossini – which we chose as a relatively light reintroduction to opera and one in which we would have no difficulty following the plot (it’s Cinderella – oh yes it is!). This Cinderella is the fairy tale without the magic – a more realistic version of the story without a fairy godmother or any supernatural transformation – and with a pair of bracelets rather than the more familiar glass slippers. It was interesting to compare this take on the tale with Gregory Maguire’s novel 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister' (reviewed here in March 2008) which also strips away the supernatural elements of the story, but somehow manages to create something even more magical in the process. ‘La Cenerentola’ was very enjoyable – high production values and an excellent orchestra, conducted by Enrique Mazzola. The singers were very impressive, particularly Allyson McHardy’s coloratura display as Angelina (Cenerentola) and the tenor Luciano Botelho as Don Ramiro (the Prince). And I loved the Glyndebourne Chorus who were powerful, dramatic and very funny. But, on reflection, maybe choosing a work with such a well-known story was a mistake as the plot really seemed to drag. It was an impressive production but didn’t really knock me off my feet.

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

9 November 2010

When I did A-level music, one of the set works was Richard Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’: I can remember my music teacher worrying about the decision of the exam board to expose emotional, exam-stressed, teenagers to this melancholy reflection on morbidity. He needn’t have worried on my account: I am immensely grateful for this early discovery of Strauss’ masterpiece, which is now one of my favourite pieces of music and which seems to grow more perfect each time you hear it. It’s achingly sad: I will long remember watching the broadcast of this year’s BBC Proms performance by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, which ended with the Finnish soprano, Karita Mattila, staring forward, immovably, into space after singing her last note, her eyes filling with tears. I was not the only member of the Northampton Symphony Orchestra welling up during our performance of the ‘Four Last Songs’ in Northampton on Saturday. Young, local singer, Katherine Crompton, who is currently studying for a Performance Masters at the Royal College of Music, gave a beautiful performance. And it was a huge pleasure to welcome back our principal horn player, David Lack, whose seat I have been keeping warm during his absence through illness. It was wonderful to be able to leave the nerve-racking horn solo at the end of the second song, ‘September’, to Dave who played it exquisitely in his first appearance with the orchestra for 18 months. Not that my nerves were completely off the hook as I took the horn solo at the end of the first movement of Brahms’ ‘Symphony No. 2’ – one of those moments that, as a player, is both enjoyable but also a great relief when it’s over! The second symphony is a cheerful, Beethovenian work which I hadn’t played before. We opened with a powerful performance of Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg Overture’. It feels like the NSO is really developing under the baton of Alexander Walker: it was a great concert.

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Friday, November 05, 2010

'Side Show' by The Burns Unit

5 November 2010

Having first met at a Scottish Arts Council funded songwriting retreat in rural Scotland, the unlikely folk-rock-rap supergroup The Burns Unit (pun intended) have created a wonderful first album ‘Side Show’. The (mostly Scottish) Burns Unit are folk singers Karine Polwart (reviewed here in November 2005, April 2006 and April 2008) and Kenny Anderson, former Delgados singer Emma Pollock, rapper MC Soom T, Indo-Scottish bassist Future Pilot AKA, instrumentalist Kim Edgar, drummer Mattie Foulds and pianist Michael Johnston. The result of their collaboration is a varied collection of songs that manage to maintain a coherent overall identity. Some songs could have come straight from a Karine Polwart album (which is no bad thing at all) but the most interesting tracks are those that combine the disparate styles of the contributors – my favourites being those featuring the raps of MC Soom T.

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