Showing posts with label Queen Elizabeth Hall. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Queen Elizabeth Hall. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Are symphonies from memory bad news for pianists?


Aurora plays from memory. (Photo: auroraorchestra.com)

If you want music to lift you clean out of your chair, go and hear the Aurora Orchestra play a symphony from memory.

The opening concert of their season, on Sunday afternoon, entitled Smoke and Mirrors, found them at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, delivering a theatrically staged event – in the first half of which, through clouds of dry ice, the brilliant singer Marcus Farnsworth travelled from Schubert's Der Wanderer to HK Gruber's Frankenstein!!. A narrated link described an erupting volcano, the skies that it darkened in 1816 and some glimpses of Mary Shelley and friends writing ghost stories by the lake. This storytelling's ability to immerse us in the world and the legacy of early romanticism proved vivid and atmospheric; Aurora has Kate Wakeling as writer in residence, and I assume she penned this dramatic casing. (You can find her work in their season programme - not marketing blurb but actual short stories, literary and most attractive.)

All this was tremendous fun. No musician escaped this little production of Frankenstein!! without having to don a silly hat or find a hobby horse ogling at her, and conductor Nicholas Collon had to turn into Superman, with cloak and red lycra underpants. Frankenstein!!, if you haven't heard it, is a bit like Kurt Weill mixed with Monty Python on speed. It's totally wonderful and completely bonkers.

But after the interval came Aurora's famous speciality, a symphony performed from memory, and it was Beethoven's Fifth. Whatever this concert's conceptual presentation, this was the absolute real deal.

Do you think you know this piece? You might find yourself reassessing that notion at such a performance. Even the arrangement of the orchestral forces is theatrical - the contrabassoon entering after the slow movement to sit with the double basses, and the piccolo standing prominently beside the timpani, her interjections in the finale all the more noticeable as a result. The finale is all Handel and Haydn to begin - this was a composer who surely knew his Zadok the Priest and his Creation's Sunrise episode - with a hefty dose of Mozart's Papageno in the coda, which is one big Haydneque joke (the never-ending movement idea later taken up by Dudley Moore, of course). The slow movement - to which Collon brought a lot of con moto, increasing the challenges for the already virtuosic string players - is a close sibling of the variations in the Appassionata, Op. 109 and Op. 111 piano sonatas, the note-values dividing more and more. 

Should one have noticed all this before? Assuredly yes (if you're a critic, at least). The thing is, when one aspect of what you're hearing makes you hear something in a new way, the brain starts connecting in new ways too, and you start questioning and listening differently and noticing all manner of things that you might simply have taken for granted.

No chance of taking anything for granted with this lot. The whole thing flew. At the end the packed audience - young, on average, and maybe not just because this was 4pm on a Sunday afternoon - got up and yelled. Aurora hasn't only pushed the envelope. It's an orchestral rock star.

My question is: if these were the self-same musicians, knowing the music every bit as well, but sitting down and using the music, would it sound the same? Unless we make them do that, one  can't say, of course. I've long been a little bit skeptical about all this, mainly because I was a pianist myself and pianists have been cursed with the necessity of memorisation since the beginning of piano-time, or at least since Clara Schumann and Liszt. No wonder people tend to think we are nutty and antisocial - we are always busy, stressing out something chronic in the practice rooms, trying to learn things from memory! In recent years, more and more pianists have started to think life is just too short and have been playing from a score, often on an iPad, and I've been fully in favour of this. Because they're right: life IS too short...

And yet...


If you've ever played in an orchestra, can you imagine learning a whole symphony from memory, standing up (unless you're a cello, bass or that contrabassoon), interacting with your fellow musicians, having to concentrate even more than you would be at the best of times, having to know not only what you are playing but what everyone else is playing too and how it all fits together, and being able to see everyone else because you're not having to stare at the music? I can only imagine what a certain orchestra I know well would say if asked to do all this, and I reckon it wouldn't be a pretty form of words. But these results are transformative. There's an equality between sections, a sense of everyone interacting the way they would in chamber music. It's not only a question of breathing as one entity, becoming one big animal with lots of paws, as a great symphony orchestra with top conductor can. It's a level of concentration and communication that pulls in the audience to be part of it too.

Pianist with music and iPad. (photo: cmuse.org)
So what are the implications for pianists? If you're playing solo, then there's only one of you and you don't have to choose between staring at the music or indulging in actual interaction with your colleagues and the conductor. If you're playing Bach fugues or Messiaen or Ligeti and suchlike, I wouldn't blame you one little bit for plumping for the old iPad. It won't serve as a barrier between you and anyone else and it will ease your mind and your nerves, which can only be a good thing. 

But the big irony is that for pianists, the convention is to memorise solo works and play chamber music from the score (indeed, the pianist is usually the only one who has the full score in front of him/her). While the set-up of the chamber music circuit would probably make this idea deeply impractical, I can't help thinking it should be the other way around. It's in chamber music that memorisation would be most useful to all concerned, facilitating that interaction. That's not to say it doesn't work as things are. It's just that in an ideal world.....

Well, we don't have an ideal world, in any way, shape or form. But Aurora shows that with enough vision, ambition and determination, transformative experiences are still possible. Bravi tutti.




Wednesday, April 11, 2018

If music be the food of love...when do we eat?

This is a perennial issue among those who spend more evenings at concerts or other performances than not. You need to eat. But when do you ever have time?

It's a more widespread problem than we like to admit. I remember interviewing a much bigger-time critic than I am and asking what the most challenging thing about this job is. Reply? "Working out when to eat. I've never cracked it."

Here is an extreme example, more extreme than usual. But frankly, usual is pretty odd too.


The other night I found myself in a position I'd never dreamed of. (Well... OK, yeah, I dreamed. Who wouldn't?) But there we were, the Silver Birch team from Garsington, glammed up in our silks, velvets and black tie, converging around 5.30pm in the Chandos Pub for our big evening as a finalist candidate for the International Opera Awards a few doors up at the London Coliseum. I've had nice things happen to me over the years, but never before been a member of a team in the running for anything like the "Toscars" (as it's affectionately nicknamed by the cognoscenti).

Of course, I knew as soon as I looked at my ticket that we hadn't won. The Coli is London's biggest theatre, and from row G of the dress circle it would take about half an hour to walk all the way down to the spotlit stairs to the stage, depending on the height of your heels. Sure enough, the Education and Outreach category was the first to be announced, and it went to...Opera Holland Park – which, incidentally, more than absolutely deserved it.

That was about ten minutes in, after the chorus of the Opera Awards Foundation bursary young singers had set off the proceedings with "Wach auf!" from Meistersinger, magnificently wrong-footing those who'd been preparing to stand up for the national anthem (a Your Highness was present). Final curtain was three hours later.

I'd had some soup and a sarnie before leaving home at about 4.45pm. This being London, distances are large and trains not always reliable, so you have to leave plenty of time for the journey. And this is what happens, time and again - if a more extreme version, as the awards started at 7pm and we were partying in the pub first.


• If you eat a "proper meal" at lunchtime, you fall asleep (at least, I do).
• If you try to eat a proper meal at 4.30pm, you're not usually hungry.
• If you try and eat in the pub, you can't talk to anyone because your mouth is full, and there wasn't really room in our little gathering.
• You can't sit in the Coli with your sarnies munching your way through the Toscars, especially not when Teresa Berganza walks in to collect her Lifetime Achievement Award and the whole place goes absolutely bananas.
• The interval is 20 mins and you visit the loo, bump into people and try to find the water jug in the bar.  You could queue up and see if they have crisps, but that would take forever and you'd have to down them so fast you might cough on the crumbs, which, needless to say, must be avoided. You could munch a sarnie somewhere, if you'd remembered to bring one, but even then you'd probably want to maintain your dignity and do it outside, and it was pouring with rain.
• More Toscars. Touching acceptance speeches from Brett Dean for his fabulous Hamlet, and from sopranos Malin Byström (Female Singer of the Year) and Pretty Yende (who won the Readers' Award). The intriguing sight of Serge Dorny, whose Opéra de Lyon won Opera Company of the Year 2017, presenting the prize for 2018 to the Bayerische Staatsoper, where he's shortly to take over as Indendant himself. And splendid performances from several stars including Young Artist of the Year Wallis Giunta singing Orlofsky's aria from Die Fledermaus in full-on Cabaret style with top hat, blazing presence and razor-edged diction. But you don't really want your stomach to start rumbling...


Wallis Giunta in a spot of Rossini - you don't want stomach rumbles when this lady starts to sing.

You can apply a policy of eating 'little and often', which is my usual solution. You should never leave home without a sandwich or a muesli bar or a banana. But there you are at the Toscars, and as the end of the third hour approaches you're feeling worse than light-headed.

What do you do?

• You can try and blag your way into the after-party - apparently there were vegetable crisps.
• You can go to the QEH and crash the Chineke!/reopening party, but there might not be vegetable crisps.
• Or you can leg it to the 22:33 home and thence to the tin of baked beans in the cupboard that you can hear calling your name.

The beans won.

We are possibly in a state of national cultural denial over people's need to eat. I've even been to weddings where the champagne has flowed...over a few dotted-around bowls of cheesy wotsits. Concerts and theatres usually start at 7.30pm, leaving you not quite enough time beforehand unless you can get away from your desk early, while making finishing time rather late to fit in a meal and the train home, or the other way round, without causing nightmares via heavy stomach and headache before bedtime. An 8pm start might give you time to eat, but then cause anxiety if you have a long journey ahead. A 7pm start usually indicates a substantial programme rather than an early finish - except sometimes on Sundays, which is always good, because we are also in a state of national cultural denial about people having actually  to go anywhere by train on a Sunday.

My survival tips:

• Always take a sandwich with you, or at least a muesli bar.
• Don't forget this.
• Don't have alcohol if you're at a do where there's plenty of drinks but no eats – unless you have remembered your sandwich and there's time to eat it.
• Pace yourself. Try to have several nights in per week, and cook a really good meal with wholesome ingredients and heaps of vegetables. Your health matters and so does your family's.
• Remember: if you do take your sarnie, then you can also crash whatever after-party is appropriate without fear of passing out.
• If everyone else is good at pretending to rise above it all and travel to higher realms, then let them. It's your stomach. Take responsibility. Take back contr...oh, whatever.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Positively brilliant

Last night the Queen Elizabeth Hall reopened in grand style with a performance by Chineke! which by all accounts raised the new roof high indeed. I couldn't be there because I had to go to something else (of which more shortly), but I'm pleased to offer an insider's view of what it was like to be part of that concert - because my husband was playing in it. He is, as you know, usually in the London Philharmonic. And my gosh, he had a good time. Over to Tom...

Chineke! with conductor Anthony Parnther (Tom is at the back on the left)
Photo: Mark Allen

So, my dear, some people were apparently quite surprised to see you playing in Chineke! But you are of an ethnic minority, technically - please explain?

Tom aged 24
One of the main misconceptions of Chineke! is that only black musicians may play in it; the mission statement clearly says “ The organisation aims to be a catalyst for change, realising existing diversity targets within the industry by increasing the representation of BME musicians in British and European orchestras.” I am sure anyone strongly believing in this, as I do, would be most welcome to participate, as either a performer or indeed as a financial sponsor.

I also feel a link with Africa: in my youth I was blessed with a splendid Afro haircut – my father used to say that I resembled the US activist Angela Davis... Obviously this stems from my Jewish roots. Going back thousands of years the Jews were undoubtedly descended from Africa. Hence my frizzy hair!

Chineke! players come from all over the world and are performers at the top of their game. Tell us about who some of your colleagues were? 

Tom with leader Tai Murray
Tai Murray, the orchestra’s leader is a truly marvellous violinist. At the age of 9 she debuted with the Chicago S.O. She has made a stunning recording of the Ysaÿe solo sonatas.
Mariam Adam, the first clarinet, has worked with Yo-Yo Ma, played as a soloist at Carnegie Hall, and is now based in France.
Samson Diamond, originally from Soweto, is now in demand everywhere as a freelance orchestral player.
Mandhira de Saram is the leader of the Ligeti quartet.
I loved the internationality of the orchestra. At least seven of the members are either born or based in Germany and Austria; from time to time I had to pinch myself – are we in London or Berlin?!

What it was like for you all to integrate into one orchestra? How is it different from playing in your usual orchestra?

I felt welcomed and very much at home from the start – musically it felt very similar to the high standard of the LPO.

What was the atmosphere like in the rehearsals and the concert?

At the start of the week I hardly knew anyone, and vice-versa. I must admit to enjoying that. I suppose after 32 years in the LPO, perhaps we know each other too well…
The big difference is that everyone is in Chineke! because they passionately want to be there – as opposed to simply doing “the day job” to which you are so accustomed, however good that may be.

Chi-chi Nwanoku
What did you enjoy most about it?

Feeling that together we had achieved something really special by playing exceptionally well. As a musician, that is always the most important aspect. I think Chi-chi Nwanoku can be extremely proud of what she has created here!

What’s the refurbished QEH like?

You might not guess it from looking at the place from the other side of the river, but it is really wonderful. I played in it a lot 12 years ago when the RFH was being refurbished, and it is transformed. The stage is now much more comfortable and spacious and as it is wider, going clean from side to side of the hall, the acoustic is even better. The wood looks beautiful and shiny and warms up the hall. The foyer is big and welcoming and much more user-friendly. Well done, Southbank Centre – it’s money well spent!

What do you “take away” from this experience?

I love the sheer positiveness of Chineke!. When I really enjoy a concert, I want to shout from the top of the tallest building and tell the world. It’s depressing if you know full well an orchestra has done a wonderful concert, you say “that was great” and some cynic chooses to reply, “Was it?” Last night after the performance all my colleagues in Chineke! were enthusing about the great concert. Their wonderful inspiration is going to make me even more determined to enjoy the rest of my career!

You can hear the concert, which was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, on the iPlayer, here.