Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Peter Donohoe plays Shostakovich:
Themes and variations

13 March 2018: Stratford ArtsHouse
14 March 2018: Town Hall, Birmingham

  • Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony no1 ‘Classical’ in D major, op25
  • Dmitri Shostakovich – Piano Concerto no2 in F major, op102
  • Franz Schubert – Symphony no3 in D major, D200

In the visual arts, according to the Tate, “Neoclassicism was a particularly pure form of classicism that emerged from about 1750”; whilst the original ‘classicism’ was that which “made reference to ancient Greek or Roman style”. Confusingly, though, ‘classical’ music (see The Oxford Dictionary of Music, for example) is generally labelled as materializing around the same time (1750) – following the Baroque, and preceding the Romantic; “covering the development of the symphony and concerto” – with ‘neoclassical’ music then being produced between 1920 and 1950.

Settling on such precise dates is, of course, prone to spark dispute; and I, for one, would claim that Grieg’s spectacular Holberg Suite – from 1884; and performed by OOTS in November’s concert – is definitely neoclassical: although not yet, as such an outlier, part of any definite trend. Today’s first work – formally christened by its composer as ‘Classical’ – was also produced outside those dates (during 1916-1917): and yet surely sets the standard for all that followed. (Unlike Stravinsky, though, who would return to earlier melodies and musical models frequently throughout his life, Prokofiev described this symphony’s composition as merely a “passing phase”!)

Whilst we all know, albeit vaguely, what classical music sounds like (and therefore, by extrapolation, its neoclassical offspring, as well); and recognize it when we hear it; it is harder to say exactly what it is. As with last month’s programme, I shall resort to quoting Michael Kennedy – as his pithy summary is surely as good as it gets!

Music of an orderly nature, with qualities of clarity and balance, and emphasizing formal beauty rather than emotional expression (which is not to say that emotion is lacking); music generally regarded as having permanent rather than ephemeral value.

Fortunately for us, ending as it does with Schubert’s Third Symphony, this concert provides us with the opportunity to compare structurally similar works from both the classical and neoclassical eras, and therefore draw our own conclusions. That these astonishing compositions are both in the same brilliant key of D major may also be to our advantage (although neither one remains in that key for very long). How we categorize Shostakovich’s exuberant concerto, which separates them, I do not know. It is so startlingly original – and so unlike most of his previous, Stalin-shadowed output – that it probably belongs in a class all of its own!

Monday, 26 February 2018

Jennifer Pike plays Tchaikovsky:
Themes and variations

12 March 2018: Forum Theatre, Malvern Theatres

  • Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony no1 ‘Classical’ in D major, op25
  • Franz Schubert – Symphony no3 in D major, D200
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major, op35

Tonight’s concert begins and ends with bright, golden fireworks… – or yellow ones, at least: Russian composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) and Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) both agreeing (for once) that this was the characteristic colour, for them, of the key of D major. In his influential work of 1785, Ideas Towards an Aesthetic of Music, Christian Schubart (1739-1791) – summarizing the thoughts of many earlier musicians – described it as “The key of triumph, of Hallelujahs, of war-cries, of victory”; adding that “Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key”. We are therefore in for an enjoyable evening of what philosopher (and composer) Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) called “gaiety or brilliance”: as not only do our wonderful first and last works start and finish in this flaxen key, but so does our enthralling central one!

Not that this means we are in for an evening of invariability: if anything, the music programmed tonight demonstrates just how spectacularly disparate orchestral ‘classical’ music can be. For example: a comparison of the two “inviting symphonies”, both fashioned to long-standing formal rules – particularly as regards structure – reveals many more differences than similarities. They both just happen to open and close with the same chord. (Although it then takes Prokofiev a mere eleven bars to change key completely: to the “innocent, simple, naïve” C major!) After all, the key which each revolves around, is only a starting-point: all it does is unlock the musical doorway through which we, and the players, ‘visit’ each composition.

As for Tchaikovsky’s miraculous work: the key of D major is a favourite one for violin concertos – think of Mozart’s second and fourth; of Beethoven’s, and of Brahms (also written in 1878); and even of Prokofiev’s first… – as the instrument’s open strings are particularly resonant in this key. (As, of course, are the orchestra’s! Indeed, the last chord we will hear tonight uses this characteristic to full effect: as the strings triple- or quadruple-stop – that is, play three, or all four strings, simultaneously – and, in this case, fortissimo…!)

You might think from the descriptors above that an evening packed full of what scholar Albert Lavignac (1846-1916) dubbed “joyful, brilliant, alert” D major might be too much of a good thing. I don’t believe it is; and I hope, at the end of the evening, as you call Jennifer back to the stage once more, that you won’t either!

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

An old friend of OOTS…

Whilst writing the programme notes for the last concert to contain a commission written for OOTS’ 21st Anniversary seasonViola and Double-Bass Take Centre Stage! – I had a brief email conversation with composer Julian Philips: who has produced an immensely beautiful work, Ballades Concertantes, for solo viola, double-bass and chamber orchestra, as a companion piece to Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s Sinfonia Concertante for Double-Bass and Viola.

The words which follow are all Julian’s; the musical excerpts are the first lines of each of the four Machaut Ballades that inspired him.

Ballades Concertantes developed out of an engagement with two different historical traditions – the late-fourteenth-century Ballade of Guillaume de Machaut, and the later eighteenth-century sinfonia concertante, as developed by Haydn, Mozart or Dittersdorf. Machaut, because my recent opera The Tale of Januarie – based on Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale – had engaged with late medieval music; and the music of Machaut – who was the great figure of his day, and very much known to Chaucer – was still in the air. The sinfonia concertante, because David and the orchestra were keen to celebrate their twenty-first anniversary by reviving a form which gives solo spots to individual orchestral players. In this case, the viola and double-bass.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Weaver of moonbeams…

Ahead of his two concerts – in Stratford-upon-Avon and Birmingham, conducting Orchestra of the Swan with this year’s Associate Artist, cellist Laura van der Heijden – I went to meet Julian Lloyd Webber: now Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, and steering it through some exciting times as it prepares to move into its purpose-designed new home.

Entering his office in the old building – sadly nearing the end of its productive life, in the centre of the city – one cannot fail to be reminded, though, of his previous career as one of his (and my) generation’s greatest, and most successful, solo cellists: with posters of some of his most memorable achievements scattered throughout the room. Indeed, above his desk – in pride of place, perhaps – he points out a large framed copy of the cover of the CD I am nervously clutching between my fingers: a recording which confirmed his status of hero for me, and for many others. But more of that later: because, as he welcomes me in, and shakes my hand, there could not be a more genial and gracious interviewee. (As I am rapidly learning – as my first year of being OOTS’ Writer-in-Residence comes to a close – the majority of classical musicians are incredibly generous people: open, willing to chat, to treat you as an equal, to spend time with you… – they just happen to be incredibly talented, too – although no mention of this will ever pass their lips.)