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8 Nov 2017

TO HEAR SIBELIUS, DO WE REALLY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT FINLAND?

LONDON SEASON

8 Nov

2017


A few days before its concert marking Finland’s centenary on 7 December, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Southbank Centre will present an afternoon of talks and discussions on the subject – and a little context goes a long way, argues curator Andrew Mellor.

On 2 December at Southbank Centre, I’ll be introducing a series of talks, discussions, videos and performances focussing on Finland’s journey to independence in 1917 and the role art and music played in that process. The afternoon is part of a series of similar events at Southbank Centre that fall under the title What You Need To Know.

The obvious question that title raises – particularly if you’re planning to hear the Philharmonia Orchestra play some truly astonishing music by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius on 7 December – is this: do you really need to know about any of the things we’ll be discussing?

Some might answer that question with a resolute ‘no’. Music is music, they could legitimately argue: it doesn’t need any geo-political or historical baggage to make its point or to move its listeners. To some extent, I agreed. But as someone who came to music because I love what it does to my ears and my senses rather more than what it represents in the way of knowledge gathering or intellectual nourishment, I would politely disagree.

For me, and I suspect for many others, context and investigative discussion can unlock certain elements in a piece of music that would otherwise lie undiscovered. Historical facts, parallel creative narratives and explanations of musical structure and process all reveal things about music that can make us hear it differently; that can make elements of it speak more vitally, painfully, beautifully and universally.

Here’s an example. On 7 December, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra will play Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite – a set of four orchestral movements that tell a story in music drawn from Finland’s epic poem, The Kalevala. The first movement of the suite is one of the strangest and most distinctive stretches of music Sibelius or anybody wrote. It seems to sustain itself purely through intangibly sourced momentum, and to contain no themes or tunes at all. I thought long and hard for many years about what might be going on inside that piece of music to make it so distinctive and so ‘ordinarily’ exciting – music that gets down on its hands and knees and talks to its audience as equals.



 

The answer isn’t in many music textbooks or even in the score itself (certainly not if you don’t know what you’re looking for). But it is in the historical context; in what was going on at the time Sibelius wrote that stretch of music and how those things influenced him. In fact, the composer was borrowing a structural technique from a certain tradition of Finnish folk singing based on cumulative repetition and slow transformation. If you came to hear Ilona Korhonen singing ‘runo song’ after the Philharmonia’s performance of Sibelius’s last two symphonies in September, you’ll have heard that tradition – or a version of it – first hand. 

Once you hear the ‘runo song’ elements at work in his music, you can more easily grasp Sibelius’s procedures. But perhaps more significantly, you can start to understand how his art was rooted in something deeper than just writing functional, purposeful music. It was wrapped up in new ideas of ‘Finnishness’ that were infiltrating the upper reaches of Finland’s creative life in the years before the country declared independence from Russia. Ethically or not, many such indigenous elements were declared representative of the country’s ‘identity’, an identity that was seen as pre-requisite by leading figures mobilising the populace for independence.

Does that, in turn, give extra weight to the sense of striving and pining we hear in the first part of the Lemminkäinen Suite? And if so, should it? Finland’s process of forging a national identity in art influenced a lot of painting, literature, music and even architecture from the late 1800s into the twentieth century. But when we look back on it now, the story doesn’t seem quite so straightforward.

Two people who know more about that than most are the guest speakers at our event – the real experts. Daniel Grimley is one of the world’s leading thinkers in the area of Nordic music and its relationship to worldwide musical currents as well as traits and agendas closer to home. He has some fascinating, evolving thoughts on the subject. His colleague from the University of Oxford, Eveliina Pulkki, is equally well placed to discuss some of the untruths and hidden truths that surround Finland’s artistic reputation and place them in a broader cultural and social context. Not only has she conducted extensive original research in the field, she also happens to be a Finn.

Eveliina, in fact, will help us look beyond Sibelius, an exercise that might help us glance back at the composer and his music with fresh eyes and ears. So too will the music of a composer who wrote at the same time as Sibelius and in the same country, but in a different style: we’ll hear live music by Toivo Kuula (1883-1918) courtesy of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s MMSF Instrumental Fellowship programme. We’ll also hear, via video, from Esa-Pekka Salonen and from the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. Sibelius himself will even put in a brief appearance on screen too.

Hopefully that will make you consider joining us on 2 December. If you do, I hope you’ll discover something new about Finland and its cultural life that will enhance your enjoyment of Finnish art, be it music, photography, literature of even film. But I also hope you’ll bring your own ideas – that you’ll challenge all of us who speak and ask the questions that interest and occupy you, whatever they might be. Sibelius loved nothing more than a frank, free, lively discussion with friends. We hope – minus the large quantities of alcohol – to enjoy the same.

Andrew Mellor


30 Oct 2017

Music of Today: Beat Furrer

MUSIC OF TODAY

30 Oct

2017


The Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017/18 Music of Today series continues with a celebration of music by Austrian composer, and founder of Klangforum Wien, Beat Furrer. Watch the free performance on Sunday 5 November at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces Beat Furrer's intricate style.

Works for stage – seven so far and an eighth (Violetter Schnee) in progress – run like a spine through Beat Furrer’s output. Of them, FAMA (2005), performed in London last November, is perhaps the most renowned. In Ovid’s description Fama, the Roman goddess of fame and rumour, lives at the centre of the world in a house with ‘a thousand openings, and no doors to bar the threshold. It is open night and day: and is all of sounding bronze. All rustles with noise, echoes voices, and repeats what is heard.’ Furrer’s hour-long ‘sound theatre’, which combines Ovid with Arthur Schnitzler’s 1924 novella Fräulein Else, was originally staged inside a specially built box. The audience sat inside while the musicians, outside, played and sang through shutters – lined on one side with bronze – that opened and closed, continually amplifying, filtering and altering the sound.

FAMA, described by one reviewer as ‘a miracle’ after its premiere at the Donaueschingen festival, is almost a summation of Furrer’s work, and motifs of echoes and reverberations, as well as processes of filtering and layering, overflow into his instrumental pieces. The piano in particular – with its built-in echo chamber of copper-wound strings – has been an important instrument. After nuun (1995–96) for two pianos and large ensemble, ideas of resonance and shadowing were taken up in the piano solo Phasma (2002) and the Three Piano Pieces (2005) – the latter essentially studies in reverberation effects. The Piano Concerto (2007) sets these investigations within a highly dramatic trajectory. Over its 18 minutes the work traces a broad sweep across the full range of the keyboard, beginning with silently depressed bass strings that resonate sympathetically with the sounds of other instruments, up to the woodblock-like snap of the very highest register. Throughout, the ensemble (which includes a second, ‘shadow piano’) acts like a resonating chamber for the soloist, although not a straightforward one: it has its own agenda, and its reflections – like those within FAMA’s shuttered box – are often recoloured or recharacterised.



Nicolas Hodges, piano soloist

Twice the upward spiral is interrupted, the music’s frenetic dynamism freezing suddenly like a ‘bullet time’ sequence in an action film. The first instance feels like a system error as piano and ensemble appear to have peeled apart and halted one another. The second, after 10 minutes, is longer and has a more melancholy feel however, as though the piano, having reached its topmost register, knows that the game is up. Soloist and ensemble rally briefly, but the music – which had such momentum – has become stuck in ruts and loops, like a damaged CD. Left with nowhere to go, apart from a few cries of defiance, it simply burns itself out.

Despite his love of resonance as a dramatic and thematic device, the surface sound of Furrer’s music – exemplified in both this evening’s pieces – is rather dry, dominated by snapping pizzicati, staccato piano (especially in its very highest, least reverberant register) and muted brass. Resonance, then, is less a matter of washes of echoing sound, but of crisp relationships between a thing and its double.

Furrer’s doubles developed into polarities after the composition of another theatre piece, Wüstenbuch (Desert Book, 2010), whose libretto is concerned with the desert as a place between earth and the afterlife (it is based on Ingeborg Bachmann’s diary of her journey to Egypt in 1964, made in the midst of sickness and after the breakup of her relationship with the playwright Max Frisch). Linea dell’orizzonte (2012) picks up these themes: the ‘line of the horizon’ is where ground meets sky, and Furrer’s piece for nine musicians holds opposing elements – at the start, staccato jabs and drooping glissandi – in a similar balance, at the same time evoking the skyline’s intense, hazy glare.

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2017

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press).


27 Oct 2017

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA: THE FOUR SEASONS

LONDON SEASON

27 Oct

2017


On Thursday 2 November, the Philharmonia Chamber Players continue their free early-evening concert series with a performance of Piazzolla's Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires).

Bandoneonist Julian Rowlands introduces his arrangements and the world of Astor Piazzolla in this post.

Bandoneonist and composer Astor Piazzolla is the most famous representative of Argentinian tango music. His work transcends the genre of tango, referencing classical music, jazz and rock, and entering the worlds of opera, literature and film.

Piazzolla's Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) were not originally conceived as a suite. The first movement to be composed, Verano Porteño (Summer), was written in 1965 as incidental music for the play Melenita de Oro by Alberto Rodríguez Muñoz. Piazzolla also immediately created an arrangement of the piece for the traditional tango orchestra of his mentor Aníbal Troilo that was recorded in 1967. Otoño (Autumn) was written in 1969, and Primavera and Invierno (Spring and Winter) in 1970.

Many of Piazzolla's major works, including the Estaciones, were written for tango ensembles, the majority for a quintet consisting of bandoneon, violin, electric guitar, piano and bass. Classical ensembles usually perform these works in arrangements. The Estaciones are frequently heard by concert audiences today in the arrangement for violin and strings written by Leonid Desyatnikov in 1996-8 that was popularised by Gidon Kremer. Desyatnikov's version is a work of recomposition that incorporates sections from Vivaldi's Four Seasons (Quattro Stagioni) and passages by the arranger to create a concertante suite for the violin. It is a very effective concert work that doesn't require an extensive knowledge of tango performance practises to perform.


I have taken a different approach in the arrangements of the Estaciones that I have made for bandoneon and string quintet, and by way of explanation I will describe how I see the tradition of Argentinian tango and the music of Piazzolla as related to, but distinct from, European art music or classical music.

Piazzolla studied with the great 20th century classical figures Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger, but as a performer he worked for most of his life within the tradition of Argentinian tango. Tango argentino is an art music tradition in which orchestras (the “orquestas típicas de tango”) employed professional arrangers, but the score is often a preliminary that is altered, developed and embellished in rehearsal and performance. Piazzolla composed at the piano and then changed anything that didn't work in rehearsal with his band. Final performance versions weren't captured in the scores that were eventually published.

Tango musicians understand how to create the rhythmic structures notated in Piazzolla's scores in shorthand, how to add articulation and dynamics to shape the phrase, and to vary the rhythmic structure of melodies. In the extensive solos passages, the lines as notated are a simple framework on which Piazzolla and violinist Fernando Suárez Paz hang their intricate, rhapsodic embellishments. The most difficult aspect of this embellishment for classical musicians is the so-called “fraseo” (phrasing), where the soloist pushes and pulls the tempo against the steady pulse of the accompanying instruments; any tendency to follow the soloist breaks the phrasing, so the ensemble has to brutally resist their instinct to play in the sensitive manner that is engrained in chamber musicians!



The relationship between score and realisation in tango is more similar to baroque music than to any other genre: there is a role for embellishment but not for extensive improvisation over a chord sequence, and a sense of dance is important, even in works that weren't written to be danced. Piazzolla's music resembles baroque music structurally: it often reduces to two contrapuntal melody lines with a bass, and piano and guitar perform a continuo-like role in between obbligato passages. Imagine if we had recordings of Vivaldi and Corelli performing their own pieces – what a revelation that would be. But in the case of Piazzolla we do have the recordings, and with a piece like Verano Porteño we can follow the development of Piazzolla's interpretation through the successive recordings that he made. In tango the recording is the authoritative text, and the primary means of transmitting the tradition in Argentina is through transcription and recreation of recordings under the guidance of experienced teachers. We can create versions of the great classic tangos that are faithful replicas of recorded performances and that serve as a starting point for our own interpretations, which can then develop from performance to performance in a continuation of the tradition.

The arrangements that I have written are closely modelled on Piazzolla's recordings with his quintet, except for Verano Porteño, which is based on the extended version that he created for his nonet consisting of bandoneon, electric guitar, piano, drums, string quartet and bass. So in this movement I was able to recreate much of the string writing using the same instrumentation.


Decisions have to be made regarding how much and how exactly one includes passages that may be spur of the moment creations, sometimes simplifying in order to allow space for new interpretative ideas, while trying to capture the moments of ecstatic rhapsody in a way that will bear recreation without becoming stale. There were passages where I asked myself: is this too crazy to include in a concert version? But I mostly resisted the temptation to censor or to bowdlerise and I will leave it to audiences to decide whether I made the right calls. I think that it pays off to study the recorded versions deeply and repeatedly in order to gain an insight into the decision making and creative processes that forged this repertoire.

Piazzolla was a great composer who spent a lifetime working his musical material and producing many masterpieces, while simultaneously maintaining a performance career at a high level. He also represents the visible tip of an iceberg when it comes to Argentinian tango music, and I hope that as more musicians take an interest in performing his music in the stylistic traditions of Buenos Aires, they will also explore the repertoire of the great orquestas típicas – of Aníbal Troilo, so important in Piazzolla's development, and also of Osvaldo Pugliese, Carlos di Sarli, Pedro Laurenz, Juan D'Arienzo, Osvaldo Fresedo, Florindo Sassone ….

© Julian Rowlands: bandoneon.co.uk


24 Oct 2017

Joseph Phibbs: Clarinet Concerto

LONDON SEASON

24 Oct

2017


On 4 and 5 November, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Principal Clarinet Mark van de Wiel perform the premiere of a new Clarinet Concerto by British composer Joseph Phibbs, in concerts in Basingstoke and London conducted by Edward Gardner.

In this article, Joseph Phibbs introduces the piece and explores the influences that shaped the concerto.

This 24 minute work is the result of a long and creative friendship with Mark van de Wiel, whose extraordinary expressive and technical scope – ranging from standard classical repertoire to the most demanding contemporary works – in large part shaped the work’s form and character.

Comprising four movements, the work opens with a slow introduction, the unfolding of the clarinet’s opening theme supported by soft, sustained strings. A type of rondo emerges, signalled by a soft pizzicato ostinato in the lower stings over which the clarinet’s earlier theme is transformed into a solitary, blues-inspired refrain. The mood here is urban, snatches of dance rhythms accompanying the soloist’s ever-expanding melodic gestures, while elsewhere a myriad of orchestral figuration (first in the woodwind, and later the strings) is suggestive of city lights.

A more lyrical theme appears towards the end of the movement, before giving way to a fast coda. A cadenza serves as a bridge to the second movement, a fast and unsettled type of nocturne-fantasy whose principal thematic material is defined by a short recurring scalic figure in the clarinet which expands and transforms as the movement progresses. A number of contrasting episodes allude to various non-classical traditions to which the clarinet is often linked, including Eastern European folk music, before the movement closes abruptly.  



The third movement, a slow and at times mournful vocalise, is reminiscent of the work’s opening by way of its pared-down orchestral scoring, and features a simple repeated harmonic pattern over which the soloist ‘sings’ in an often impassioned and at times strident manner.

Following without a break, the fourth movement harks back to the urban-inspired world of the first, though here with greater abandon. Ever denser, rising chords in the orchestra punctuate florid gestures in the clarinet, before leading to a faster coda. A syncopated passacaglia emerges, inspired by its literal meaning (‘street walk’), the soloist’s at times wild, quasi-improvisatory lines weaving through a constantly shifting orchestral backdrop, underpinned by the repeated bass line which characterises this form. This in turn accelerates towards the end of the movement to form a faster ‘walking bass’, before a final ascending flourish brings the work to a close.

My thanks to Mark, the work’s dedicatee; the Philharmonia, at the suggestion of former Managing Director David Whelton; and Malmö Live Konserthus, at the suggestion of Per Hedberg, Head of Programming, for their generous support.

© Joseph Phibbs

Commissioned by Mark van de Wiel, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Malmö Live Konserthus.

Film: Watch Phibbs introduce his previous Philharmonia commission, Rivers to the Sea, winner of the orchestral category of the 2013 British Composer Awards.


11 Oct 2017

Voices of Revolution: Martin Sixsmith on Battleship Potemkin

LONDON SEASON

11 Oct

2017

Series Advisor Martin Sixsmith introduces Eisenstein's 1925 masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, ahead of the opening concert of the Philharmonia's Voices of Revolution series with Vladimir Ashkenazy on 12 October.

Most of us know at least something about Battleship Potemkin. The images of the massacre on the steps, the child’s pram careening down them and the old woman shot through her spectacles are celebrated icons of political cinema. But how many of us know what led up to the massacre? What year it took place? If indeed it did take place?

Sergei Eisenstein’s film is set not in 1917, but twelve years earlier, in June 1905. The Tsarist regime had been rocked by two cataclysmic events, the Bloody Sunday revolt in February and military disaster in the Russo-Japanese War in May. Spooked by unrest at home and gambling on the distraction of a foreign war, Nicholas II had sent the Russian fleet half way round the world to engage the Japanese in the Straits of Tsushima.

The outcome was a seaborne charge of the light brigade, the worst naval defeat in Russian history. Outmoded, underequipped ships advanced into a hail of concentrated enemy fire to be picked off and sunk, one after the other. Eight battleships and four cruisers went down before the Russian admiral raised the flag of surrender. Four thousand men were dead, another seven thousand taken prisoner.

Russia had been humiliated and anger with the Tsar boiled over. “An unparalleled crime was committed by those who sent us to our deaths”, wrote Vladimir Kostenko, ship’s engineer of the cruiser Oryol. “Our decrepit, degenerate monarchy was hoping for a miracle, but instead got the catastrophe of Tsushima. It is Tsarism that has been smashed by the Japanese guns. It is Tsarism that bears the shame of this defeat. The whole absolutist system is morally bankrupt!”



Discontent spread quickly. In the southern port of Odessa, sailors of the Black Sea fleet rose up in protest. It was a natural subject for Bolshevik propaganda and in 1925 – the twentieth anniversary of the revolt – Eisenstein’s film made the most of it. We see the sailors on the Potemkin abused by their masters, forced to eat maggot-infested meat and threatened with a firing squad when they complain. The film draws us into indignant complicity with the men’s plight; we share their exaltation when the mutiny spreads to other ships then to the inhabitants of Odessa itself.

The drama is compelling and Eisenstein uses ground-breaking cinematography to intensify its impact. Rapid intercutting between shots, subliminal frames with images evoking pity or horror combine with sophisticated montage techniques to give the film an enduring potency. It was judged so powerful, in fact, that it was banned in several countries, including in Britain until 1954, on the grounds that it would foment social unrest.

But as with so many revolutionary legends, the Potemkin events were less dramatic than their subsequent portrayal. The film’s most celebrated scene of Tsarist Cossacks slaughtering civilians on the steps leading to the docks did not happen. There were clashes elsewhere in Odessa, but it was Eisenstein’s genius that transposed them to the now legendary location. And the final tableau of the pro-Tsarist flotilla switching sides to grant the revolutionaries safe passage out of the port is largely fantasy. So convincing were Eisenstein’s efforts, however, that more than one history book has reported them as fact.

By the time the film was made, the Bolshevik regime had decreed that all art should be clear and simple, with a political message comprehensible to the even the least educated. Eisenstein’s task was to elicit a visceral response from his audience, to channel their sympathies in the correct political direction; and because dialogue was impossible in the era of silent movies, the role of the soundtrack took on added significance. The film needed music that would heighten the onscreen emotions and reinforce its effectiveness as agitprop.



The Austrian socialist composer Edmund Meisel, who wrote the score for the first international screening in Berlin, did a solid job. Delays in getting the film passed by the censor meant he had only 12 days to complete it, but he worked hard to match the music to the action on the screen – not always the case with film scores in the past.

Eisenstein liked Meisel’s music, but expressed the hope that a new score would be written every 20 years. Only that, he felt, would preserve the film’s freshness and guarantee its impact on future audiences, as musical tastes changed. It was an expression of faith in Potemkin’s longevity, a faith that has been justified. New scores were written in 1950, 1985, 2004 and 2011 by different Soviet and Western composers.

In 1975, when the Soviet authorities released a fiftieth-anniversary edition of the film, extracts from three Shostakovich symphonies were assembled into a slightly cumbersome soundtrack, beginning and ending with the supposedly triumphant D Major fanfares and finale from number 5. The use of well-known bleeding chunks was hardly subtle, and the score that will be performed by the Philharmonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy attempts to remedy that by deploying a wider range of Shostakovich themes (from symphonies 4, 5, 8, 10 and 11) in a version that succeeds in sounding more organically connected to the storyline.

Marrying film and live music is not always simple, however, and Eisenstein himself left a warning in his memoirs that should keep modern day performers on their toes. “A 1929 showing of Potemkin in London,” he writes, “was utterly ruined because they varied the projection speed to help fit it to the music. They destroyed the whole rhythm of the thing and, for the first time in my film’s existence, the audience burst into laughter.”

© Martin Sixsmith



3 Oct 2017

Music of Today: Michael Daugherty

MUSIC OF TODAY

3 Oct

2017


The Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017/18 Music of Today series opens with a showcase of music by American composer Michael Daugherty. Watch the free performance at 6pm on Thursday 5 October. Read Daugherty's introduction to the works featured in the programme below.

 

Mermaid Avenue (2016)  from This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest inspired by the life and times of Woody Guthrie

In 1943, three years after composing "This Land is Your Land,” American singer-songwriter and political activist Woody Guthrie was ready to settle down. He and his new wife Marjorie moved to a modest house at 3520 Mermaid Avenue.  Mermaid Avenue was located near Coney Island, the iconic amusement park located on the last subway stop from Manhattan on the Atlantic Ocean. The years Woody spent on Mermaid Avenue were the most stable and prolific period of his nomadic life.  During his years at Mermaid Avenue, Woody embraced the yiddish culture which surrounded him, along with the carnival atmosphere of the Coney Island boardwalk and beach.  But tragedy was just around the corner: in 1952, he was admitted to Brooklyn State Hospital, beginning a long battle with Huntington's chorea which lead to his untimely death in 1967.  

 

Walk the Walk (2005) 

Walk the Walk for baritone sax and percussion was commissioned by Opus 21 for a concert honoring pianist Joe Hunter (1927-2007) and the Funk Brothers, a group of Detroit studio musicians who played on all of the historic Motown releases from 1959 to 1972. Using a deconstructed fragment from the Temptations' My Girl as a compositional idée fixe, I  take the listener through a world of virtuosic Detroit blues, rock, jazz and Latin Motown musical grooves.

 



 

Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover (1993)

Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover for string quartet and pre-recorded sound was commissioned by Kronos Quartet.  The first performance was given by Kronos Quartet on January 23, 1993 at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. My composition is about the man who directed the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation virtually unchallenged from 1924 until his death in 1972. 

My composition opens with one of J. Edgar Hoover's favorite mottoes: “The FBI is as close to you as your nearest telephone.” This “reassurance” to the American public also served to authorize his systematic invasion of their privacy: for Hoover, the telephone became an instrument for playing out his lifetime obsession with collecting sensitive information for his so-called “secret files.” Throughout his 48 years as director of the FBI, Hoover ordered the wiretapping of the telephones of movies stars, gangsters, presidents, civil rights activists, politicians, communist sympathizers, entertainers, and anyone who opposed his own political and moral agenda. 

For me, the motto offers an opportunity to listen in on Hoover’s voice, and to manipulate it for my own compositional purposes. The telephone, like the digital technology I have used, mediates voice so that it is both distant and near. I wanted to bring the dead voice of J. Edgar Hoover back to a posthumous life through technology, so that it may “sing” of its own death. I created the tape part by digitally sampling bits of actual historical speeches delivered by Hoover from 1941 to 1972, to such diverse audiences as the American Legion, Boys’ Club of America, and the FBI National Academy. 

It was eerie to be the first person to hear these tapes since they were made available to the public. I composed string parts to “sing along” with Hoover, in order to convey my sense of Hoover’s grim, threatening, yet darkly comic personality. The part played by the string quartet is also inspired by sounds associated with the FBI, such as sirens, American patriotic songs, and machine gun syncopations. The quartet therefore creates another context for hearing Hoover’s own words: “I hope that this presentation will serve to give you a better knowledge and a deep understanding of YOUR FBI.” 

 

Dead Elvis (1993) 

Dead Elvis was commissioned by Boston Musica Viva and Chuck Ullery, principal bassoonist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It is more than a coincidence that it is scored for the same instrumentation as Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat (1918) in which a soldier sells his violin and his soul to the devil for a magic book. In Dead Elvis, the bassoon is Elvis (or perhaps an Elvis impersonator). Does this rock star sell out his Southern folk authenticity to the sophisticated professionalism of Hollywood movies, Colonel Parker and Las Vegas in order to attain great wealth and fame? Dead Elvis goes far beyond this romantic Faustian scenario. For me, the two clashing Elvis images (the hip, beautiful, genius, thin, rock-and-roll Elvis versus the vulgar, cheesy, fat, stoned, Las Vegas Elvis) serve as a sturm und drang compositional algorithm. Further, my use of the dies irae (a medieval Latin chant for the Day of Judgement) as the principal musical theme of "Dead Elvis" signifies yet another aspect of the Elvis myth: some people believe Elvis is dead, while others believe he is alive and well in Kalamazoo. Perhaps the question is not whether Elvis is alive or dead, but why the phenomenon of Elvis endures beyond the grave of Graceland. Elvis, for better or worse, is part of American culture, history and mythology. If you want to understand America and all its riddles, sooner or later you will have to deal with (Dead) Elvis.

Programme Notes by Michael Daugherty

 



29 Sep 2017

Philharmonia - Live from London: About Mahler Symphony No. 3

DIGITAL PROJECTS

29 Sep

2017


Ahead of Philharmonia: Live from London, a global live stream of our performance with Esa-Pekka Salonen this Sunday, find out more about Mahler's Third Symphony. Programme note by Julian Johnson.

Watch the live stream on Sunday 1st October at 3pm BST, for free on YouTube or on Facebook Live, in partnership with the Guardian.

As he had been with both his First and Second symphonies, Mahler was initially ambivalent about whether the Third was indeed a symphony or a symphonic poem. The early outline sketches from 1895 suggest various programmatic titles for individual movements and for the work as a whole. One such was ‘The Happy Life, a Midsummer Night’s Dream’, though without any intended reference to Shakespeare’s play. Another was ‘Symphony No. 3: The Joyful Science. A Summer Morning’s Dream’. The reference here is to Nietzsche’s Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, usually translated as The Gay Science, published in 1882. If there are any links between Mahler’s music and Nietzsche’s book they lie in a shared tone of irreverence rather than any philosophical content. A third possible title was simply ‘Pan: Symphonic Poems’. The reference to the Greek god Pan, the wild god of nature, was explicitly linked in Mahler’s sketches to Dionysus, the god of wine but also of ecstatic ritual. In both cases, Mahler’s reference seems to be to the timeless force of an unrestrained nature, unordered by the rational or moral codes of modern society, and the music to his vast first movement certainly seems to bear this out.

Like the Second Symphony, the Third is a mega-symphony, a work with a cosmic ambition to sum up the trajectory of creation itself, in Mahler’s own words ‘a musical poem embracing all stages of development in a step-wise ascent [that] begins with inanimate nature and ascends to the love of God.’ This vast conception has to be understood in the context of an age that was highly attracted to grand, all-encompassing accounts of the natural world. Mahler had a lifelong interest in philosophical and scientific theories and read widely in these areas, but he was also part of a cultural tradition in which artists and musicians expected to take on the great themes of life and death. He had a life-long devotion to the works of Richard Wagner, whose last music drama Parsifal (1882) was, at that time, still performed only at Bayreuth under quasi-religious conditions. Mahler’s Third Symphony thus grows out of an understanding of art as a kind of religious and philosophical quest.

Given such a conception, Mahler was understandably frustrated that his symphony became known, before its première, almost entirely through performances of one isolated movement, the so-called ‘Blumenstück’ (‘Flower piece’). In a letter to Richard Batka, of February 1896, he expressed his concern that the public would hear him simply as a ‘sensuous, perfumed singer of nature’:

‘That this nature hides within itself everything that is frightful, great, and also lovely (which is exactly what I wanted to express in the entire work, in a sort of evolutionary development) – of course no one ever understands this. It always strikes me as odd that most people, when they speak of “nature”, think only of flowers, little birds and woodsy smells. No one knows the god Dionysus, the great Pan. There now! You have a sort of programme… Everywhere and always, it is only the voice of nature!’

Many commentators, including Mahler’s contemporaries, heard in this work not just the force of nature, but also that of the new politics of a popular and mass society. Richard Strauss likened the great march of the first movement to the experience of a May Day parade in the Prater Park in Vienna. The unison horn call that opens the movements was heard by some as the quotation of a 19th-century student protest song, as used also by Brahms in his Academic Festival Overture. Critics railed against what they saw as the symphony’s vulgar, banal and frivolous elements, perplexed about how to understand the sudden contrasts between the rarefied world of symphonic music and tunes and rhythms more usually heard on the street. Was Mahler trying to parody the hallowed genre of the symphony in this way? Often, they concluded that he was.


Esa-Pekka Salonen on Mahler's Third Symphony from Philharmonia Orchestra on Vimeo.


1. Summer Marches In (Pan Awakes)
This is an immense movement, conceived on a vast scale – not just in terms of its duration (over 30 minutes for this movement alone) but in its unwieldy form and sheer weight of sound. Few pieces of music evoke such a powerful sense of ‘the world without form’, summoning its materials out of a kind of primeval emptiness. ‘It is eerie’, Mahler commented, ‘how from lifeless matter (I could just as well have named the movement ‘What the Mountains Tell Me’) life gradually breaks forth, developing step-by-step into ever-higher forms of life.’ The opening call, played fortissimo on eight horns in unison, seems to echo into some vast emptiness. A sombre march rhythm begins, the only hint of directed movement, amid low rumblings in the percussion. The emptiness is broken only by unpredictable eruptive gestures, shooting skywards like spouts of molten lava. ‘Some passages of it seem so uncanny to me’, Mahler later commented, ‘that I can hardly recognise them as my own work.’ His representation of elemental origins was, necessarily, also a sounding of the Unconscious.

Out of this lifeless world, form and motion gradually emerge. The first sense of a tangible identity is voiced by a solo trombone, which comes to assume an unlikely central role in this movement. It emerges from the rawness of the opening section, calls into the silence, and echoes out around the amphitheatre of lifeless matter. But from its initial stark monosyllables it gradually learns to speak with a lyricism and expressive tone that make great demands of the player. The entrance of summer and the displacing of winter are marked by a tremendous march, starting from the distance, converging from all directions and eventually carrying all before it. In his annotations, Mahler marked one passage Der Gesindel (The rabble) and another passage Der Südsturm (The southern storm). These are the anarchic forces with which the world is renewed, the unstoppable, irrational and unordered harbingers of the new. Mahler described the storm as ‘raging like the southern gale we are experiencing here these days, and which – I am sure – brings with it fertility, coming from faraway, fruitful, hot countries, not like the gentle east wind we usually wish for. With a march tempo it roars, closer and closer, louder and louder, swelling like an avalanche, until all the loud, jubilant noise engulfs you.’

2. What the meadow flowers tell me
The second movement sees a complete change of voice; in place of massive energy and force we are presented with utter transparency and simplicity. Mahler’s Ländler is marked grazioso, denoting a sense of ease and perhaps even a gentle sentimentality. ‘It is the most carefree music I have ever written’, Mahler said, ‘as carefree as only flowers can be.’ Its tremendous lightness of touch suggests a chamber-orchestra style in which solo orchestral voices often come to the fore. Like many of Mahler’s inner movements, this is a character piece, made up of contrasting sections more like ballet music than the symphonic narratives of Mahler’s outer movements. A sense of dream-like fantasy is never very distant here, more like the world of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream than the grand tone of Bruckner or Wagner.

3. What the creatures of the forest tell me
‘The Scherzo, the animal piece, is the most ludicrous and at the same time the most tragic…This piece really sounds as if all nature were making faces and sticking out its tongue. But there is such a horrible, panic-like humour in it that one is overcome with horror rather than laughter.’ Mahler’s sense of horror is perhaps less obvious to the modern listener, who is more likely to hear the charm of this movement. It is derived from one of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs but, as with the Scherzo of the Second Symphony, turned here into a purely instrumental movement. Der Ablösung im Sommer (The change in summer) is typical of his naïve folk-style. It tells of the ‘change of the guard’ in the forest, from the spring (represented by the cuckoo) to the summer (represented by the nightingale). The symphonic movement takes up some of the simple humour of the song, in which the world of the forest birds and animals takes on a self-sufficient quality.

This world, however, is broken into by a distant fanfare signalling the human world. The famous ‘posthorn’ interlude (written for a flügelhorn) is directed to be played ‘as if from a great distance’. It provides a wonderful example of Mahler’s ability to create the haunting effect not only of spatial distance – but also of temporal distance. What starts out as a fanfare, such as one might imagine hearing from a distant posthorn, becomes a more sentimental folk-like melody. It creates a powerful sense of reminiscence – of looking back to a distant time. Mahler’s forest creatures, at first startled by this intrusion, begin to interact with the new voice. Two horns join in, and the rapt string chordal accompaniment is marked to be played ‘as if overhearing’.



4. What night tells me
The fourth movement brings the distant sound of the human world centre-stage as, for the first time in this work, we hear the human voice. An alto soloist delivers a setting of the dark ‘Midnight Song’ from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (Strauss’s tone poem of that title was written at exactly the same time, 1896). It begins in the depths of night, with a deeply mysterious atmosphere created by Mahler’s withholding any familiar sense of musical movement. In its place, we hear only the gentle rocking of the bass instruments, the slow tolling of bells and ‘sounds of nature’, like the haunting screech of a night-bird (in the oboe). Only gradually does the lyrical expression of the voice, joined by solo violin and horn, begin to draw out a sense of yearning movement in the face of the dark silence of nocturnal nature. In the context of Nietzsche’s philosophical fable, this poem has to do with the prophet’s disgust at contemporary man but also acts as an expression of faith in his potential for transformation. This threshold function is exactly how Mahler’s setting of it works within the Third Symphony – as a borderland between one state of consciousness and another, a place where the earthly and the heavenly overlap.

5. What the morning bells tell me
The brooding, meditative and deeply solemn tone of Nietzsche’s ‘Midnight Song’ gives way to the light-hearted humorous tone of ‘Es sungen drei Engel’ (‘Three angels were singing’). Mahler’s performance direction is keck (cheeky), and it begins with a boys’ choir imitating the tolling of the bells (‘Bimm Bamm’) before being joined by a women’s choir for the song proper. The original Wunderhorn poem has the title, Poor Children’s Beggar Song, and the childlike viewpoint of the song is key to Mahler’s setting here, just as in his setting of Das himmlische Leben (Heavenly Life), originally intended as the seventh movement of the Third Symphony, but which Mahler used as the finale of the Fourth instead. With childlike directness the song tells of the angels’ singing before moving to the idea of sin and forgiveness. Its irreverent tone makes for an unlikely and oblique account of the sinner’s tears of contrition and the promise of the eternal love of God, a divergence between text and setting that was exactly what confounded critics in Mahler’s lifetime.

6. What love tells me
With the Adagio finale, however, Mahler reverts to his most sincere and religious tone. Though this movement is written for instruments alone, Mahler uses his orchestra like a choir. The strings at the beginning are marked sehr ausdrucksvoll gesungen (sung with great expression). The chorale-like texture, the register and movement of the individual parts, all suggest a kind of intense choral singing, and for a while Mahler confines his string parts to the range of singers. The effect, when it comes, of allowing the orchestra to expand beyond the limits of human vocality is all the more powerful for the restrained beginning. This is a sublimated choir, one taken up into supra-human realms by the instruments of the orchestra, and the movement as a whole proceeds in this way, by a succession of expansions rather than by development or narrative. It enlarges itself from within, rising up through a series of ascending plateaux. Undoubtedly, it takes its model from the slow movements of Beethoven; the critic William Ritter was so moved that he claimed it as ‘perhaps the greatest Adagio written since Beethoven’.

The other echo that contemporary critics might have heard was Wagner’s Parsifal. The drama of that opera is played out between the diatonic chorale and march-like materials of the Grail knights and a rather tortured chromaticism associated with the idea of desire and longing. Mahler’s Adagio similarly moves between these two types of music, with the calm assurance of the D major hymn alternating with passages of searching and intensely passionate music. Like Parsifal, Mahler’s music finds its affirmative conclusion in a containment of that chromatic pain within the calm assurance of the diatonic – here, a sustained coda in D major. In doing so, it draws together a symphony of unprecedented heterogeneity, which has journeyed from the raw, elemental world of the first movement with the anarchic energy of its storm winds, through the sounds of meadows, forests and night, to the folk-like vision of heaven. The finale’s vision of divine love is given in a unity and purity of tone that would not reappear in Mahler’s music again until the Eighth Symphony a decade later.

Copyright: Julian Johnson. 


Esa-Pekka Salonen Remembers His Philharmonia Orchestra Debut with Mahler's Third Symphony from Philharmonia Orchestra on Vimeo.


1 Aug 2017

The Virtual Orchestra: Ravinia Festival

DIGITAL PROJECTS

1 Aug

2017


This July, the Philharmonia's VR experience, The Virtual Orchestra, received its American premiere with audiences at Chicago's Ravinia Festival. Join Steph Clarke, the Orchestra's Digital Projects Manager, as she gives an insight into the occasion. 

 

This July, I took a trip to Chicago to install the Philharmonia's Virtual Reality experience The Virtual Orchestra at Ravinia Festival, an outdoor music Festival just north of Downtown Chicago and west of the banks of Lake Michigan. 

Having seen the project at its London launch in October 2016, Welz Kaufmann, the CEO of Ravinia, was keen to premiere the full-length experience in the US. Visitors to Ravinia Festival became the first to see the full third movement of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony in 360-degree virtual reality, watching Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra.



Ravinia Festival takes place over the summer months from June until September. A mixture of pop, rock, jazz and classical concerts take place in its 3,400-seat open-air covered pavilion but the concerts can be heard throughout the 36 acre park so many concert-goers prefer to purchase “lawn tickets” where they can sit in the sun and soak-up the music and atmosphere with a picnic. I was impressed at the spectacular display of picnics I saw on my first concert evening. Visitors were set up for three-course dining. They had brought candelabras, champagne flutes, fine china – the works!

Ravinia is the oldest music festival in the US and has been the host to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1905 - they have been Orchestra in residence there every Summer since 1936. The opening of The Virtual Orchestra was timed to open at Ravinia the same day as the start of the Chicago Symphony residency. 

Ravinia Festival was the first time we had the opportunity to showcase The Virtual Orchestra on PlayStation 4 PSVR and so some time was spent in London preparing all the equipment and designing custom plinths especially made to house the equipment. The set-up required four long days on site in heats of 33 degrees with 96% humidity but I was lucky to be able to overhear the rehearsals and soundchecks for the evening performances as I worked, including Sheryl Crow and CSO.



The Virtual Orchestra was very well received by Ravinia audiences with more than 800 visitors over the course of the week. We were even delighted to welcome pianist Yuja Wang and Conductor Lionel Bringuier – soloist and conductor for the opening night Chicago Symphony concert – before they took to the stage for their evening performance.

The hospitality I experienced at Ravinia and in the USA was excellent. Everyone I met during my trip offered advice and assistance. As I packed up the final box to ship back to London, the Ravinia staff extended their hospitality once more and invited me to a truly American experience – to watch the annual softball game between Ravinia Festival and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A long-standing contest, which the CSO have won for many years running. My cheering for Ravinia mustn’t have gone unnoticed as history was made this year and Ravinia won back the title, for this year at least.



29 Jun 2017

Reaction: Pélleas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera 2017

ORCHESTRA

29 Jun

2017


Andrea Carroll as Mélisande, credit Clive Barda

This June the Philharmonia made its Garsington Opera debut in a new production of Debussy's Pélleas et Mélisande. Here are some of the reactions from across the music world:


"The Philharmonia`s playing is glorious"

Tim Ashley, The Guardian



Andrea Carroll as Mélisande and Paul Gay as Golaud, credit Clive Barda


"Under Jac van Steen’s baton the Philharmonia created exquisite soundscapes in the orchestral interludes and punctuated the vocal lines adroitly"

Claire Seymour, Opera Today



"Rarely has this extraordinary score revealed such exquisite beauty and yet equally hit home with such devastating power"

George Hall, The Stage



Andrea Carroll as Mélisande and Jonathan McGovern as Pélleas, credit Clive Barda


"Even those far from being ‘Pelléastes’ would relish Jac van Steen’s direction of the Philharmonia Orchestra"

Melanie Eskenazi, Music OMH


21 Jun 2017

Composers' Academy 2017: Meet the Composers

MUSIC OF TODAY

21 Jun

2017


The Philharmonia Orchestra's Composers' Academy is a scheme that gives three emerging composers the chance to work with composer Unsuk Chin, Artistic Director of our Music of Today series, alongside members of the Orchestra. The project culminates with a new composition by each composer, performed in concert as part of the Music of Today series. This year's recipients, Gareth Moorcraft, Lisa Illean and Donghoon Shin, will have their works performed tonight at 6pm.

In this blog post, each of the composers introduce their work.

 

Gareth Moorcraft

Reflections (After Gibbons)

My new work Reflections takes inspiration from the Fantasias for viol consort by English composer Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). I think of the piece as a kind of musical conversation which develops and distorts the sounds and materials of the originals, exploring how they can be re-imagined in new musical contexts. Fragments from Gibbons's works form the basis for five short movements, each of which focuses on a single musical element (lines, harmonic progressions, imitative devices and contrapuntal textures). The movements might be considered as miniature portraits or studies, each posing a new question and exploring Gibbons's materials from different perspectives.



 

Lisa Illean

Januaries

Landscape and natural elements seem to deeply influence my mind, my memory and the way I put sounds together. My piece takes its title from Southern hemisphere summers, where elements often seem to share two states at once: where air is swollen with water, and where afternoons give way to steaming rain one sweats in. The sensation of this lingered with me as I composed. It coloured re-imaginings of earlier sketches of music written for the Philharmonia Orchestra (so much so, that I eventually titled the work Januaries).



 

Donghoon Shin

The Hunter's Funeral for Ensemble



For a long time, I have been fascinated by different types of funeral march music in diverse cultures. What intrigues me is the irony in this specific genre - melody and harmony in minor keys express sorrow and remorse while a rhythmic feature repeats itself underneath, evoking slow dance music. For instance, in the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, what starts as funeral music turns into a sarcastic dance. According to the Mahler scholar Constantin Floros, Moritz von Schwind’s woodcut ‘The Hunter’s Funeral’ (1890) was possibly the inspiration for this music.

The Hunter’s Funeral is my response to the same woodcut. It depicts animals carrying the coffin of a hunter in a solemn march. This paradoxical scene gave me a strong inspiration for the piece. It starts with a very simple and rather mundane pitch cell, C-D-E-F. The harmony structure and the melodies in the piece are all derived from the simple pitch cell, which gradually changes colour from bright to dark.

The music is divided into two movements with no gap in between. The first movement has a fast and rhythmic feature like dance music- groovy, sharp and energetic. The tempo of the dance music gets slower and a funeral march emerges in the second movement. Over the repetitive rhythm of the strings, the melodies in the woodwinds and the brass dominate the movement. In the final section, the melodies become heterophonic and eventually obsolete.





15 Jun 2017

Composers' Academy 2017: Lisa Illean on Januaries

MUSIC OF TODAY

15 Jun

2017


The Philharmonia Orchestra's Composers' Academy is a scheme that gives three emerging composers the chance to work with composer Unsuk Chin, Artistic Director of our Music of Today series, alongside members of the Orchestra. The project culminates with a new composition by each composer, performed in concert as part of the Music of Today series. This year's recipients, Donghoon Shin, Lisa Illean and Gareth Moorcraft, will have their works performed on 21 June.

In this blog post, Lisa Illean gives an insight into the process and inspiration behind her work, Januaries

 

I returned to my desk to finish work on Januaries in April, after two weeks in Australia with family in New South Wales and Queensland.  I had at this time many, many sheets of manuscript and some recordings: experiments with microtonal harmony and sketches made throughout the past months for our lessons with Unsuk Chin. There were many versions, unwinding across the page in different speeds and densities.

What I inevitably brought to the desk in this final phase were lingering sensations and memories that were awakened while I was travelling. Like the materials on my desk, these memories always settle in pieces and with some distortions, assembled in a logic closer to that of dreams than waking life. But underpinning these was a sensation—simple and precise—and it was this that I worked towards in the final version of the piece. 

In a world that seems to prioritise the visual, I’m very interested in the relationship between sounds and sensations (and how much of one’s interior life can be communicated through sound).  This is a question that I’ve taken into the many rehearsals, concerts and workshops that I’ve been privileged to attend throughout the Philharmonia Orchestra Composer’s Academy.  I’m very grateful for these opportunities to sharpen my imagination and practical understanding of instruments (and disrupt the pull of solitude that accompanies composing). 

In considering sensations that elude the eye, I am reminded of a description by Simon Leys (sent to me recently by a friend):

“Australian scenery is of inexpressible beauty, it is true, but it is also utterly inconspicuous and non­spectacular—and impossible to capture with a camera: this worn­down immensity, with its half­erased profiles constitutes a magic space entirely devoid of focal point; like ghosts, mirages, and supernatural visions, it escapes the photographer, it does not leave any impression on film.”

Januaries will be premiered alongside two other brand new works by Gareth Moorcraft and Donghoon Shin at 6pm on Wednesday 21 June in a free performance. For more information, click here https://www.philharmonia.co.uk/concerts/1596

Photography © Catherine Pyle



30 May 2017

Music of Today: Mei Yi Foo

MUSIC OF TODAY

30 May

2017


On 8 June, pianist Mei Yi Foo presents a specially selected set of solo miniatures alongside Abrahamsen's Piano Concerto, as part of our free Music of Today series. Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the programme.

Unlike the visual arts, where the study is usually an exercise on the way to a later, finished work, in music it has become a genre in its own right. Yet the set of ten piano studies Hans Abrahamsen wrote in 1984 have played a more preparatory role than usual. Among the last extended works he completed before a long hiatus through the 1990s, they helped him write two works – Four Pieces for Orchestra (2004) and tonight’s Piano Concerto – before the breakthrough success of Schnee (2008). The concerto’s four movements draw on three studies: the Debussian ‘Arabeske’ is revved up a gear for the work’s glittering opening, the clangorous ‘Boogie-Woogie’ forms the basis of the turbulent third movement, and ‘Rivière d’oubli’ provides a tranquil ending.

If the Piano Concerto shows a composer of immense skill and invention, it also shows him at a transitional moment. Within just seconds of that stunning beginning, with the piano’s shimmering arpeggios enlivening a rich ensemble bloom, Abrahamsen yanks the emergency cord, and the movement abruptly grinds to a halt. The second movement – the only one not based on one of the 1984 studies – begins with the piano attempting to reconstruct something from that false start. The music builds once more, step by step, only to collapse again under its own weight. The third movement seems to find a happier home, although it continues to wrestle with dark interjections. Only in the fourth do we reach a compromise, with the piano withdrawing enough to retain control. There are hints of what might have been, but then the piece is finished, a quizzical last interval from the trumpets underlining its enigmatic quality.



Musical studies are also often exercises for the performer rather than the composer, and for players of different ages or abilities. Music for children and childlike music makes up the other half of Mei Yi Foo’s programme. Of these, György Kurtág’s two Játékok (‘Games’ or ‘Playthings’) are closest to educational studies: Kurtág began his eight volumes of Játékok in 1976 at the request of a piano teacher, and the early pieces (both of those this evening are from Volume I) bear some resemblance to Bartók’s Mikrokosmos in their construction of a progressive (if unorthodox) piano method. Kurtág was also influenced by Rudolf Steiner, however, and aspects of Steiner’s pedagogy are clear in the priority Játékok gives to childlike fantasy and physicality.

Elements of both are present in Helmut Lachenmann’s Ein Kinderspiel and Sofia Gubaidulina’s Musical Toys. The latter’s picture-book quality intends to evoke the sorts of pieces Gubaidulina would have liked to play as a child. Lachenmann’s pieces were written for his own children, but he insists that they are ‘Not educational music and not necessarily for children’. ‘Hänschen klein’ transmutes the popular German rhyme into a descent across the piano’s 88 keys and a study in sonority, while ‘Falscher Chinese (ein wenig besoffen)’ (‘Fake Chinese (a little drunk)’) smothers a ‘Chopsticks’-like left hand with parallel triads in the right.

Other pieces engage with childhood in different ways. George Benjamin’s ‘Hammers’ comes from a set of ten short pieces, Piano Figures, that are imagistic, Kurtág-like miniatures. The third of Rzewski’s Ludes harnesses the same bebop roots as Gubaidulina’s bass-playing bear; the first is a pot-pourri of half-remembered tunes and playground rhymes. Chris Harman reimagines piano cycles by Robert Schumann: After Schumann II, No. 2 strips ‘Wichtige Begebenheit’ (‘An Important Event’) from Kinderszenen back to its raw rhythms. Peter Eötvös’s Dances of the Brush-Footed Butterfly evokes dancing wings seen in the garden. Finally, with Unsuk Chin’s scattershot ‘Toccata’ we return to the true compositional étude.

 

VARIOUS COMPOSERS

Musical Toys

For solo piano:

György Kurtág Játékok – ‘Perpetuum Mobile’

Chris P Harman After Schumann II, No. 2

George Benjamin Piano Figures – ‘Hammers’

Peter Eötvös Dances of the Brush-Footed Butterfly

Helmut Lachenmann Ein Kinderspiel – ‘Hänschen klein’ & ‘Falscher Chinese (ein wenig besoffen)’

Frederic Rzewski Ludes I & Ludes III

Sofia Gubaidulina Musical Toys – ‘A Bear Playing the Double Bass and the Black Woman’

György Kurtág Játékok – ‘Ráncigálós’

Unsuk Chin Klavieretüden – V ‘Toccata’

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

HANS ABRAHAMSEN (b. 1952)

Piano Concerto (2000)

For solo piano and ensemble

 

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press). Discover his work on his blog.


26 May 2017

Discover the MMSF Instrumental Fellowship Programme

ORCHESTRA

26 May

2017


The Martin Musical Scholarship Fund, administered by the Philharmonia Orchestra, has given invaluable support to countless young musicians since 1968.​ Ahead of the Young Artist Showcase Recital given by recipients of the Philharmonia MMSF String Fellowships on 1 June, cellist Yaroslava Trofymchuk describes her time spent as a member of the programme. 

Experience is one of the fundamental ways we learn. One can study the theory of how things work but nothing compares to the knowledge gained through a practical approach. This principle holds true for music just as much as in other aspects of life.

I feel incredibly privileged to have this opportunity to work with such an orchestra as the Philharmonia as part of my Fellowship scheme. There are so many things that you don’t learn at college and that are not written in books, things that you pick up just from being part of the ensemble - each orchestra has a different ‘set of rules’: a certain way of playing, of moving, even turning pages in a right way. As a result, with some groups you can feel restricted, worrying about following the rules rather than being free to enjoy the music.

What I find incredible about the Philharmonia Orchestra is that I don’t feel like this. It somehow works so naturally and all the energies from the different musicians flourish organically into a unique music making experience. As I am not currently a full-time member of an orchestra, it’s wonderful that I’m able to feel so comfortable here, playing side-by-side with such excellent musicians – I’m immensely grateful for all their support and for making me feel so welcome!

While the experience of being part of such an organisation is priceless, the Fellowship programme, in fact, goes even further. All of the Fellows have wonderful mentors from the orchestra and receive regular coaching sessions with them, with an emphasis on orchestral repertoire. This has been one of the most fascinating aspects of the programme, as it has given us the chance to gain in-depth knowledge on orchestral music, beyond the more soloist-oriented focus of typical instrumental teaching. We even had the chance to perform in a mock audition! It gave us both insights into the professional audition process at an orchestra, as well as giving us the chance to play through our audition pieces with immediate feedback from the panel.



As part of our Fellowship we perform in some fantastic recital opportunities as well as in chamber concerts. I’m really looking forward to our next performance, at the Royal Festival Hall, where we’ll be playing works by Kodály and Janáček - I’d like to give an introduction to one of my favourite works in the programme, 9 Epigrams by Zoltán Kodály. Originally written in 1954 for two voices (soprano and alto) and a piano, the composer wrote in the score that it could be performed on string or wind instruments, transposed an octave down or up and even performed in a different order, giving us lots of freedom to create our own interpretation of the music.

We transcribed seven of the Epigrams for cello and double bass with a piano and slightly changed the order, placing the lively fifth movement as an interlude between other movements.

Hazaszeretet (Love of my country)
Altató (Lullaby)
Tavasz (Spring)
Gyöngyvirág (Lily of the Valley)
Felho (Cloud)
Tavasz (Spring)
Bánat (Sadness)
Nyár elé (Approaching Summer)
Tavasz (Spring)

The rather unusual register of the lower instruments brings something very earthy and human into the sound. Each movement is about 1 minute long and has its name-character. In a very impressionistic manner the music draws pictures from someone’s very simple life in the countryside, with its dreams, love and sadness.  
 


13 May 2017

Taiwan & Japan - part I

INTERNATIONAL TOURING

13 May

2017


 

Following two concerts in Taichung, Taiwan, the Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen head on to Japan. First violinist Adrián Varela describes his experience of Taiwanese hospitality.

Taichung proved the most extraordinary official and unofficial hosts. We are sad to leave.

When I was growing up, my father told me stories of how as a young man in remote Uruguay he would go to symphonic concerts of visiting orchestras, and at the end of the show, hang around the artist entrance trying to catch some of the artists for a chat. Often he'd manage to coax a bunch to the nearest bar, restaurant, or even his place. In our music library at home we had Philharmonia pocket scores of every major symphonic work, signed by otherwise anonymous musicians from foreign orchestras, their names placed next to their favourite passage of the work they'd played that night.

Last night some Taiwanese concert-goers had stopped Fabrizio Falasca and myself at the door and made a similar invitation, which we deferred to today, our final Taiwan concert in Taichung. Hours later we emerged from one of the most extraordinary, beautiful nights I've ever experienced on tour, one that fulfilled music's promise of connecting peoples across language, cultural and national barriers. 

While the rest of the orchestra was treated to the warmest reception (following two days of mid-afternoon full buffet for the entire orchestra), Fabrizio and I learnt: that one of the ladies had hardly slept the night before from the excitement of our first concert; that another offered her house as a holiday spot; another had seen many of the films to which we have recorded soundtracks.

We talked through the night about music, family, Budhism, borders, politics, life. The evening left us with a fistful of new friends, and three giant canisters, each, of delicously scented local varieties of tea to bring home, courtesy of our unofficial hosts ATC ('Alcohol, Tea, Coffee'). In return, I felt privileged to give away copies of my Tango/jazz CD to them, music which explicitly addresses the coming together of cultures.

Back in my hotel room well after midnight and not many hours from check-out for the journey to Japan, I checked the date and saw, fittingly, that today would have been my late father's birthday.

Both on and off duty, Taichung and the Taiwanese have proved to be of the most extraordinary, generous, sensitive hosts we have experienced in quite a long time.

I hope we can come back soon.


12 May 2017

Lawrence Power, Viola: Breaking the Mould

LONDON SEASON

12 May

2017


On Thursday 1 June 2017, British viola player Lawrence Power makes his second appearance with the Philharmonia Orchestra this season. Digital Producer Marina Vidor explains why his performances with the Orchestra are a little bit different.

We meet violist Lawrence Power for a coffee well in advance of filming with him. He’s relaxed and keen to talk about the solo viola pieces he has programmed ahead of the two concerti he is performing with the Philharmonia this season: Julian Anderson’s Prayer ahead of the Walton Viola Concerto (12 February 2017) and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pentatonic Étude ahead of the Bartók Viola Concerto (1 June 2017). He is committed to breaking out of current classical music programming trends and trying new approaches – in this case solo pieces that introduce a concerto.


"I have always been fascinated by the cycle we find ourselves in with programming. The whole ‘overture-concerto-symphony’ is very much a sort of fashion we’re in at the moment. Maybe we’re slightly coming out of it now – certainly with the Philharmonia, who are doing some really innovative things. You look at some of the early 20th century programmes, late 19th century programmes, of [Joseph] Joachim, for example… It’s just wonderful what they put together, seemingly incongruous things."

Lawrence Power


We agree to make a music video featuring Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pentatonic Étude, written for Power, as a preview for audiences coming to our June concert. Get a sneak peek here – we release a full video performance of the piece on Friday 19 May on our YouTube Channel.


Several months later we film Lawrence performing the Pentatonic Étude in his agent’s gallery space in Wandsworth, southwest London. MaestroArts has a beautiful art gallery with a good acoustic and we are blessed with a sunny winter morning. The gallery’s walls feature botanically inspired prints by the artist Jan Hendrix. The crew is excited because we’re making the first recording of this brilliant solo piece composed by Salonen in 2008, full of dazzling technique and folk-inspired warmth. Power’s Antonio Brenzi viola, made in Bologna circa 1590, fills the room with sound.

Because the viola has fewer solo works written for it than, say, the violin or cello, Power is committed to increasing the size and scope of its repertoire. In this way he continues the rich tradition within Britain of great violists inspiring composers. Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) and William Primrose (1904-1982) were two of the greatest violists who have ever lived and throughout their careers encouraged composers to write for their instrument, resulting in a number of important new pieces for the viola including compositions by Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge, Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst, Benjamin Dale, York Bowen, Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton. Béla Bartók started his Viola Concerto for Primrose, but left it unfinished at his death in 1945; it was finished by violist Tibor Serly, who had been Bartók’s apprentice. Lawrence Power has premiered works written for him by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Julian Anderson, Huw Watkins, Alexander Goehr, Olga Neuwirth and of course, Esa-Pekka Salonen. 


"The opportunity to work with composers is an honour, really. It’s the greatest thing. To start from scratch and to present something without any influence, without any history… It keeps you so fresh as a musician, just to be aware of all of those processes at their very infancy. When you go back to classical repertoire and having worked with composers a lot, I take back so much freedom. You’re not paralysed by history, by style, or by what people will think of the way you play Beethoven or Bach."

Lawrence Power


Salonen’s Penatonic Étude was written to lead straight into the Bartók Viola Concerto and makes reference to the concerto’s opening pentatonic (five-note) scale. Tickets for Lawrence Power performing with the Philharmonia on 1 June are still available. Gustavo Gimeno conducts, with Mahler Symphony No. 1 in the second half. Click here to book: https://www.philharmonia.co.uk/concerts/1622

Watch the full interview with Lawrence Power here:


28 Apr 2017

Inspirations Part III: What To Expect

LONDON SEASON

28 Apr

2017


The next concert in our Inspirations series with Esa-Pekka Salonen and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, on Thursday 4 May, juxtaposes the music of Debussy and Boulez in an original way. Philharmonia Concerts Manager Natasha Riordan-Eva explains what will happen on the night.

When seen in isolation, colours can look beautiful, but flat. But when we see colours alongside each other, we see the connections between the different shades, the subtleties of how the addition of tones can create warmth or a sense of cold, light and darkness, and how colours complement each other. At our concert on Thursday 4 May, we delve into the sound worlds of Claude Debussy and Pierre Boulez and the beauty of this concert is the order in which the pieces will be performed.

Esa-Pekka Salonen has curated the order of the first half in which the works of Debussy and Boulez will interrupt each other; each piece will lead into the next without a pause and, like seeing colours together, the soundscapes of Boulez and Debussy will complement and inform each other:

BOULEZ Notations IV, for solo piano (1’)
BOULEZ Notations IV, for orchestra (2’)
DEBUSSY 'Gigues', from Images (7’)
BOULEZ Notations VII, for solo piano (1’)
BOULEZ Notations VII, for orchestra (6’)
DEBUSSY 'Rondes de Printemps', from Images (8’)
BOULEZ Notations II, for solo piano (20")
BOULEZ Notations II, for orchestra (2’)
-interval-
DEBUSSY Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra (26’)
DEBUSSY La mer (24’)
 

The solo piano miniatures will be performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard who is no stranger to this concept. In 2010 Aimard presented Collage Montage at the Aldeburgh Festival, a concert in which Pierre-Laurent chose various solo piano works and crafted them together to create a single line of music. Works bled into each other with the fluidity of watercolour paint and pieces you wouldn’t think had anything in common effectively became extensions of each other.

That concert has been at the back of my mind as I’ve been listening to the Boulez and Debussy works we will perform on Thursday. I’ve started to hear things in the music that I hadn’t heard before. Now I hear part of Debussy Gigues in the Seventh of Boulez’s solos piano Notations – is this really my mind hearing something new or am I actively seeking similarities? Do the piano Notations sound less harsh if they are heard in the context of the Debussy works? Does the Debussy sound more contemporary alongside the Boulez? Listen to our Spotify playlist and see what you think:



 

The beauty of presenting music in this order is that as the listener your ears and intuition are on high alert as you are transported to different sound-worlds. Whether you know these works well or whether you are a first-time listener, this concert will allow you to experience these brilliant compositions in an order that has been curated by Esa-Pekka Salonen, whoknows these scores inside-out and understands how they can be crafted together to create a one-off experience.

To enhance the atmosphere, lighting designer Colin Grenfell has created tailored lighting for the first half. We want the concert experience to enhance the experience, and the different moods of the solo piano and orchestral music will be reflected in the lighting. Surtitles will indicate when each new piece begins.

The opening of the second half is a step backwards in time from the Boulez. Debussy started working on the Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra in 1889 when he was 27, and whilst there are hints of his later harmonic language the mystery of Images is not yet there. Fast forward a few years and we reach La mer: this is Debussy at the height of his creative powers. Sun shimmers on the water, waves crash and the wind tears through the sea. Salonen has said that ‘no matter how many times you have looked at every note [of La Mer]…it only sounds new.'

Debussy broke ground with this piece, and surprised his contemporaries who had thought they knew Debussy’s ‘style’. A fitting end to a concert devoted to two artists who took music to the edge, conducted and performed by two musicians who in turn continue to push boundaries.

Tickets for Inspirations: Debussy & Boulez, on Thursday 4 May 2017, are still a available. Click here to book tickets.

Image: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Stravinsky's Les noces, featuring Pierre-Laurent Aimard (right-hand side of the image) on 26 May 2015, as part of the Philharmonia's Stravinsky: Myths & Rituals series.


31 Mar 2017

Principal Guest Conductors: Reaction

ORCHESTRA

31 Mar

2017

Yesterday we announced our two new Principal Guest Conductors: Jakub Hrůša and Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Here is some of the reaction we received from across the music world:
 







 

Classic FM kindly made a splash, featuring Hrusa and Rouvali in last night's #FullWorksConcert:



 

Finnish publications picked up the news, and Finnish Music Quarterly published a feature on Santtu-Matias Rouvali:




30 Mar 2017

Meet Jakub Hrůša

ORCHESTRA

30 Mar

2017


 

The Philharmonia Orchestra has appointed two internationally acclaimed conductors, Jakub Hrůša and Santtu-Matias Rouvali, as Principal Guest Conductors.

In this film, meet Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša, a regular guest conductor with the Philharmonia since 2011 and now part of our new-look artistic team.

Hrůša and Rouvali take up their roles at the beginning of the 2017/18 Season. Both artists will conduct several concerts a year – and contribute to the programming for the Orchestra’s major series – in the Philharmonia’s London Season at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, as well as in concerts across the Orchestra’s UK programme and internationally.

Hrůša (35), hailed in a recent Arts Desk profile as “a leading light among the younger generation of conductors”, has a wide-ranging repertoire, with the music of Central Europe a particular focus. He describes the Philharmonia as "one of my absolutely favourite musical ensembles worldwide. Every single concert we have experienced together since my debut in 2011 has been special in all aspects – the programming, the atmosphere and, most of all, the quality of the music-making." 

He Continues: "I feel truly honoured that I can become a member of this remarkable artistic institution under the inspiring leadership of Esa-Pekka Salonen. To become Principal Guest Conductor and to be in regular touch with the Philharmonia Orchestra’s musicians, and the whole team around, as well as with its public, is definitely one of my dreams come true.”

Jakub Hrůša next conducts the Philharmonia on 6 and 7 April, in London and Basingstoke. See details of all his concerts with the Philharmonia here


30 Mar 2017

Introducing Santtu-Matias Rouvali

ORCHESTRA

30 Mar

2017


 

The Philharmonia Orchestra has appointed two internationally acclaimed conductors, Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Jakub Hrůša, as Principal Guest Conductors.

In this film we introduce Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, whom we met during a trip to Finland in February, and who gives us his thoughts on joining the Philharmonia as Principal Guest Conductor.

Hrůša and Rouvali take up their roles at the beginning of the 2017/18 Season. Both artists will conduct several concerts a year – and contribute to the programming for the Orchestra’s major series – in the Philharmonia’s London Season at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, as well as in concerts across the Orchestra’s UK programme and internationally.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali (31), is one of the most exciting young conductors working in the world today. He has conducted the Philharmonia in concerts across its UK residencies. In his debut with the Philharmonia at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall in January 2016, Rouvali conducted the Second Symphony of his Finnish compatriot, Sibelius, alongside Rolf Martinsson’s Trumpet Concerto, with Håkan Hardenberger as soloist. “He is the real thing: music unmistakably flows from him,” wrote The Sunday Times.  
 
Rouvali describes the Philharmonia as "a perfectly-shaped orchestra. Its players can pick up any music, are always prepared and technically very skilful. There are so few orchestras around the world who can get close to that. Now I can conduct them: what more could I wish for?"  

He is also looking forward to being a part of the Philharmonia's new-look artistic team: "To be in London with Esa-Pekka Salonen as Principal Conductor is something I can’t wait for. He is a very rich-minded artist, with lots of ideas, and I want to be a part of that. I am looking forward to many future adventures with the Philharmonia.”

Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia in a sold-out Sunday matinee on Sunday 23 April 2017. Following a pre-concert talk in which he speaks to the Philharmonia’s Principal Trumpet, Alistair Mackie, Rouvali conducts The Planets and Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with Alban Gerhardt the soloist. Looking ahead to 2017/18, Rouvali conducts Ravel’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition on 5 October 2017.


1 Mar 2017

New release: Nielsen - Flute & Clarinet Concerto; Aladdin Suite

RECORDINGS

1 Mar

2017


In our new release, under Paavo Järvi the Orchestra performs three characteristically fiery works by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen: the Flute and Clarinet Concertos, and the Aladdin Suite.

The concerto solo parts are performed by two of our principal players - flautist Samuel Coles and clarinettist Mark van de Wiel - and recorded live at London's Royal Festival Hall.

Following the success of Nielsen's Wind Quintet in 1922, Nielsen set out to write a concerto for each member and instrument of the quintet, starting with the flute. Two years later, Nielsen started work on the second of his concertos for wind, this time letting the clarinet take centre stage. The Clarinet Concerto was sure to ruffle feathers: following an early private run-through it was described as 'music from another planet'.

Have a listen, and let us know what you think:



1 Mar 2017

The Virtual Orchestra: Esa-Pekka Salonen on conducting

DIGITAL PROJECTS

1 Mar

2017


As we finish this enjoyable project, we speak to Esa-Pekka Salonen about the art of conducting ahead of the culminating concert of The Virtual Orchestra on 1 October 2017.

Have you ever thought about conducting but been too intimidated to follow through on the idea? Watch this video for Esa-Pekka Salonen's tips on what it takes to become a great conductor and why it's such a brilliant role to have in the Orchestra.

This video is part of The Virtual Orchestra celebration of classical music at Southbank Centre.


30 Aug 2016

Universal Notes

ORCHESTRA

30 Aug

2016


Bangalore, India, December 2015. A blog by Digital Producer, Marina Vidor.  

Things are not going according to plan. Catastrophic flooding in Chennai forced the change of our destination at the last minute to Bangalore. We’re in a beautiful hotel that has also suffered minor flooding and the conference room they promised us isn’t available. All 10 of us have to pile into a hotel room.

They have moved the king-sized bed out. I’m not sure how they did this, but it’s done. I have just about managed to set up two cameras and some mics without tripping over anyone. We have all left our shoes, bags and other belongings in the small corridor. The elegant Jayanthi Kumaresh, unfazed, has settled comfortably on the floor and is tuning her elaborate stringed instrument, the saraswati veena, while her pupil sits beside her attentively, ready in case she needs anything. Jayanthi is dressed in a stunning sari, the colour of plum, garnet and strawberry, alternating with gold thread that shines. We all group around her in a semi-circle, and so another workshop begins. The crowded, unusual surroundings melt away as the music starts. Everyone plays for each other and Jayanthi teaches the group a composition she and her husband, the violinist, Kumaresh, have written. The tune gets passed around and improvised upon, the musicians becoming more and more fluid on each turn.

I’m here to document (as an equipment-laden fly-on-the-wall) a unique trip for our musicians, a crash course in Indian classical music. Over eight days, Philharmonia members Samantha (Sam) Reagan (2nd Violin) and Samuel (Sam) Burstin (Viola), along with cellist Matthew Barley and composer Fraser Trainer will take part in a series of workshops with a dozen of India’s great classical musicians. We’ll meet flutists, vocalists, percussionists and players of a vast array of stringed instruments.

Conversation ebbs and flows naturally as the session with Jayanthi wears on. Matthew asks her if she ever gets tired when playing long pieces often at a very quick tempo. Tentatively she replies, “Yes… I do,” and she laughs. “That’s the spiritual angle,” she continues, and describes that when she is playing she is actually breathing at a different, slower rate, almost as if she were meditating. It’s a technique she learned so young that she doesn’t remember when it became second nature. “You ask me if my hand hurts. In that statement we made clear that my hand is not me. So my hand may get hurt, but I shouldn’t. Now what is ‘I?’ It’s not my hand, it’s not my body. My mind tells me my hand hurts, it’s distracting me away from the music. But I shouldn’t get distracted, so my mind is not me. And my body is not me. So then what is ‘me?’ That is the supreme consciousness, which is the breath. And that is why we breath slowly when performing, so that supreme consciousness makes sure that it’s all fine.” Discussions like this continue into the night over dinner.

The Philharmonia has partnered with Darbar, the UK’s premier festival of Indian classical music, to make this extraordinary project happen, with funding from Arts Council England and the British Council as part of their Reimagine India fund. Darbar’s director, Sandeep Virdee, is leading our tour of the finest Indian classical music can offer, with stops in Bangalore and Mumbai. Our musicians will learn about the Carnatic tradition from South India and the Hindustani from North India and learn how pieces are constructed and improvised. It will be a lot to absorb and probably quite overwhelming, but this is also a huge privilege and everyone knows it.

The big struggle is of course improvisation. Western classical musicians are not usually encouraged to improvise during their studies, which is why many find it difficult and even terrifying to try it. Sam and Sam have come on board because they want to challenge themselves to work outside their normal comfort zone of the daily orchestra rehearsal and concert. They’re highly experienced musicians, but neither has pushed themselves this way before, especially not in front of a steady stream of virtuosic musicians from a tradition where improvisation is central. Matthew Barley, a cello soloist who has worked quite a bit in India and well beyond the normal remit of Western classical music, will help our musicians navigate this new path, sharing his knowledge and tips and acting as a bridge between the two traditions. Composer Fraser Trainer, who has worked closely with Matthew for years, will gather material on the trip, eventually putting together a piece that will be premiered at the 2016 Darbar Festival in September at Southbank Centre. They are hoping to create a new style of music that doesn’t compromise the strengths of Western and Indian classical music. It’s a goal to move away from jam sessions and fusion styles and really push to create something fresh and meaningful. I admire this courage and I feel privileged to be on this journey with such an ambitious team.


The big struggle is of course improvisation. Western classical musicians are not usually encouraged to improvise during their studies, which is why many find it difficult and even terrifying to try it.


30 August 2016

As we approach the Darbar Festival, which our Universal Notes ensemble will open in a few weeks, I relish looking back to our trip to India. The colours, traffic, noise, food, music and amazing musicians we met stand out vividly in my memory and are being brought back to life as I trawl through hours of footage. (Keep your eyes peeled for a short film on our trip coming out in early September.) As I watch, it’s clear that everyone understands each other on a deep, musical level, but there is also a real appreciation among the group that they come from distinct musical worlds and traditions. I see furrowed brows as our musicians struggle to remember a melody they just learned, and laughs of surprise and relief when a group improvisation comes together beautifully as people start finding their musical voice. In one session sitar player Niladri Kumar nods in approval as Sam Burstin plays a Bach extract on his viola, deeply moved. Everyone gets it, and they are working hard to meet somewhere in the middle, to find those universal notes.

For the final performance we have added two more Philharmonia musicians: Michael Fuller, bass, and Jennifer McLaren, clarinet. Coming over from India for more workshops ahead of the concert are three musicians we met back in December: Rakesh Chaurasia, bansuri, Niladri Kumar, sitar, and Jayanthi Kumaresh, saraswati veena. Workshops in London ahead of the concert will bring this new piece together. We’re all excited to see how the final piece will emerge and hope you will join us on 16 September at Darbar.

Universal Notes, Friday 16 September 2016, 6.30pm, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London. http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/concerts/1632

Marina Vidor is the Digital Producer for the Philharmonia Orchestra. She looks after the Orchestra’s prolific film programme. Watch more on our YouTube channel, and subscribe for the latest films: https://www.youtube.com/user/PhilharmoniaLondon


9 Jul 2016

Aix-istential crisis… Victoria Irish’s blog

INTERNATIONAL TOURING

9 Jul

2016


Right, well before I launch straight in and describe our workload here in Aix and what we have been doing and what we are about to do, I'd like to describe as floridly as I can my own personal experience of living in Aix thus far!
 
We have now been here a fortnight and Provence is 'heady'. It's a wonderful corner of France and as I write this, sitting under the boxwood tree in my garden, the keyboard of my iPad clicking in counterpoint with the cicadas, the warm wind blows and the atmosphere is abundant with rosemary, lavender and thyme gently wafting in the breeze. I'm not sure that I need a year in Provence, but I reckon we all need a month!
 
It seems a good time to be away from the UK at the moment as everything has gone a bit wrong. The weather is bad, people are fighting in the streets, parliament has imploded and England have lost to Iceland.
 
I am largely immune to feelings of doom and gloom down here in the South of France! We have had a light working schedule this week as Pélleas and Mélisande is now up and running like a well oiled machine and Provence lends itself beautifully to a particular type of inertia that suits me just fine. I seem to have lapsed into the habit of putting off until 'demain' what could be done 'aujourd'hui'.
 
France is a beautiful country and I can't understand how the UK has managed to remain so backward in it's appreciation of food with such a shining example just across the channel. These thoughts are prompted by looking through the photos of the markets of Aix on my iPhone (pictured), which give a surprisingly comprehensive glimpse of 'la bonne vie'.
 
So this is an extraordinary but extremely welcome patch of work. We are lucky and I cannot imagine doing anything this special again!
 
As the days go by, the more usual working schedule of the Philharmonia (punctuated by midnight lane closures on the M1, terrible traffic, troublesome parking and don't get me started on the Northern Line) become a dim and distant memory I'm not sure I would like to return to.
 
So now I should actually mention the purpose of our visit!
 
As I've said, we are lucky enough to be here performing at the Festival D'Aix-en-Provence and thus far we have completed rehearsals and started the run of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. This is an opera which we have performed with Esa-Pekka Salonen before in our home, the Royal Festival Hall, so I already knew that both we and our French audiences would be in for a treat!
 
Pelléas is an opera in five acts and the only opera Claude Debussy ever completed. It is an important work in 20th-century music and the French libretto was adapted from Maurice Maeterlink's Symbolist play by the same name.
 
For me, it is a wonderful opera based on a really quite simple love triangle but the controlled passion within the story line and the descriptions within the text make it intoxicatingly romantic. Pelléas and Mélisande say 'I love you' only once which makes the phrase extremely precious and never cheapened.
 
We, the orchestra are creating the music for an unusual and new concept of the opera here with incredibly imaginative and visually engaging stage scenes. It also helps that I am in the First Violins, therefore getting an arguably better view of the stage than many of my colleagues!
 
Here is an interview with Barbara Hannigan who is singing the part of Mélisande absolutely exquisitely:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=8DiFroWWX1g.
 
Earlier this week the production went out live, and was also recorded for broadcast on ARTE CONCERT website and The Opera Platform: http://concert.arte.tv/fr/pelleas-et-melisande-de-debussy-au-festival-daix-en-provence
 
We have had good houses every night, even on Thursday night in spite of France playing Germany and playing them rather better than we played Iceland. The hall was still packed and the sounds of their appreciation and applause encouraging. In my experience the audiences in France are discerning and rightly fussy!
 
I am completely loving it here and tonight we start work in earnest on a cornucopia of Stravinsky!
 
Fingers crossed that there won't be a riot at this Rite!