Available from Amazon.com here
Available direct from Orchestra of the Swan here
Listen to samples:
About the disc:
Composer and shakuhachi virtuoso, James Schlefer
Composer Daron Hagen
Kyo-Shin-An Arts is dedicated to integrating Japanese instruments specifically koto, shakuhachi and shamisen into Western classical music. Founded in 2008 with an initial purpose of commissioning established composers, KSA both presents concerts and partners with an international array of chamber ensembles and orchestras to perform the music. The intent is to bring forth the outstanding beauty of these instruments within the context of Western classical music, and build and promote a body of repertoire that does justice to the greatness and exactitude of these two classical traditions.
“Give me success or take this desire away from me. One of the two.”
There is an article from Boston Magazine currently making the rounds of various musician friends and colleagues’ Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Called simply “The Audition” it follows the journey of one percussionist as he prepares himself for and takes the audition for a position in the Boston Symphony.
There’s nothing really new in this harrowing and heartbreaking story for someone like me- I’ve spent too many years in and around conservatories and orchestras watching friend after friend go through this process to be shocked by anything in it. Thankfully, though, it is a humane piece of writing that I think gives a pretty good window into the huge toll the modern American audition process takes on musicians. It goes into quite a bit of detail about just how hard candidates work to prepare for an audition at a major orchestra, the sacrifices they make and the impact the system has on those involved.
And so, with this article as exhibit A, case study one million and one, I’m going to hop on my Vftp soap box and publicly call for an end to the system. It is a life-ruining, soul-destroying monstrosity. In any other field, it would qualify as torture. It is a dehumanising and damaging process that extracts an untellable toll in human suffering on musicians across the country. Far from being the perfect system for choosing an orchestra, I would say it’s closer to being the perfect system for driving people out of the field, for destroying their self-confidence and for absolutely eviscerating their love of music.
Isn’t it time the AFofM stood up and said that this is no way to treat our union brothers and sisters? Isn’t it time that orchestras said we want no part of such a hurtful and wasteful system?
The Current System
1- The application. Send a CV
2- The tape round. More and more orchestras are using a tape round to limit the numbers of candidates they have to hear. In the case of the BSO percussion job, applicants had to submit and uninterrupted and unedited video of themselves playing a series of excerpts.
3- The first round. Generally held behind a screen. A huge number of well-trained musicians play for a few minutes then most are sent home.
4- The second round. Generally held behind a screen. A much smaller number of players repeat the process. All be a handful are sent home.
5- The finals. Varies from orchestra whether or not the candidates play behind a screen. The process often becomes more intense and less formal as the committee tries to choose between the final candidates
The case for the current system
1- It’s fair. By making everyone play behind a screen, it’s only the playing, not the gender, pedigree or skin color, being judged.
2- It forces players to push themselves to a level of achievement far beyond what they learned in conservatory. It’s an absolute focus on excellence and perfection.
3- It gives the best candidate the best chance to win the audition, just as the best Olympic athlete has the best chance of winning their event.
The case against the current system
1- It’s not that fair after all. Screen or no screen, there are plenty of examples of people in major orchestras who certainly had a hand getting there. Maybe they studied with a principal, or are related to the concertmaster? Maybe they studied at the local conservatory? Any system can be gamed and manipulated. A supposedly fool-proof system like the screened audition process just makes it easier for people who do game the system to get away with it because the existence of the system gives those abuse it the perfect defense. “Preferential treatment for my mistress? Impossible! It was a screened audition- I had no idea it was her! There was simply no way I could have helped her advance.”
2- It actually constricts the musical development of aspiring orchestra musicians. By driving people to work towards an inhuman level of technical perfection, expecting them to practice the purely instrumental challenges of a tiny number of orchestral excerpts for countless thousands of hours, you make it impossible for them to develop their knowledge of the repertoire and their awareness of playing styles and historical context to anything like the same level.
3- It identifies the people who are best at playing an audition, but not always those who are the best at playing in orchestras.
One of the subplots of the Boston Magazine piece involved the story of Lee Vinson, who had won the BSO percussion job several years earlier but was denied tenure after three years. Mr. Vinson won the job- he clearly had what it took to succeed in a screened audition process, and yet, just three years later, in spite of his best efforts, he was out of a job:
““In the beginning, I was a deer in the headlights,” Vinson says. He was stung by some of the criticism directed at his playing. He tried to block it from his mind, but found it difficult. “Then the performance anxiety comes back because these people aren’t telling me what they think,” he says. “They just want to glare at you. I mean, really, you just want to turn around and scowl at me and that’s supposed to help fix this whole thing?”
“At the end of Vinson’s first year with the BSO, he fell one vote shy of earning tenure, so he was put on another year of probation. He started asking his colleagues how to “fix” his playing, but one person would tell him to try one thing and another would suggest he try something else entirely.”
It’s dangerous and unfair to speculate about a situation one hasn’t observed in person, but to me, the case of Mr Vinson seems like a case study in how the screened audition process fails even those who survive it. Mr. Vinson must have played astoundingly well in his audition to have won the job- his technical skills on a huge variety of instruments must have been literally off the charts, and yet, in the day-to-day world of playing in a busy orchestra, he found himself unsure and insecure.
This comes back to my second point above. One would assume that anyone who wins a major job would have to be a great musician as well as a great instrumentalist, but it’s simply not always true, and the fault is not with the individual player, it’s with the system. Again, I never heard Mr Vinson nor had the opportunity to hear him play, but we all struggle from time to time in professional situations- there are those times when you know what you want or need to do musically, but your skills, preparation or concentration let you down, and there are those times when you don’t know what you want or need to do musically. The description of Mr. Vinson’s situation sounds like the latter situation (especially after the first tenure vote impacted on his confidence)- he needed guidance about knowing what to do, rather than focusing on being able to do what he knew he needed to. It is a far more dangerous place to be in.
The time he spent with the BSO after being told he’d lost his job with the orchestra was “the worst year ever,” he continues. “I was like a fetus on the couch. Balled up bawling for weeks on end.”
The modern American audition system doesn’t allow a lot of room for individuals to develop a fully rounded artistic personality in the key years between leaving school and winning a job or missing that window. To the extent that it doesn’t, it fails them and the institutions. Mr Vinson’s predecessor at the BSO, Frank Epstein, said much the same thing:
“Some of that may simply be professional pride, but some of it may reflect his belief that younger musicians are moving the music in new directions. Epstein says the current audition process rewards a different kind of player [emphasis added]. There used to be at least a little room for flair while auditioning, he says. Back when he went before the judges, he got creative and performed a piece he’d composed for bass drum and cymbals.
“These days, he says, “The technique on the instruments has grown, but what hasn’t grown is the innate musicianship, the interpretive abilities of players. Sometimes that is the most difficult thing to measure in an audition.”
Let me come back to the metaphor of an Olympic competition. To compare winning an audition for a section violin to winning the 100 meters is apt in all the wrong ways. Looking for the violinist who can sprint up and down the fiddle faster than anyone else may be an interesting exercise, but what you want in an orchestra is someone
It’s not that there aren’t people in orchestra who can do all those things, of course there are, but with so much at stake, shouldn’t people be selected for the job, at least in part, on their ability to do them? The system also doesn’t serve people well who survive the tenure process. The upshot of the screened audition system is that once someone wins a job, in order to bring their skills in all of these areas up to the same level as their audition chops, an orchestral musician spends their first five or so years learning the repertoire, learning the job, learning how to play in ensemble at the highest level. Perversely, for many friends and colleagues, just about the time they have become a consummate orchestral musician, the window seems to close on them ever winning another job.
Imagine if the NBA were to adopt a similarly irrelevant and restrictive system? Imagine if you were an NBA general manager, and you had to choose your team without seeing any of the prospects actually play basketball. Instead, imagine your prospects could only demonstrate their fitness to play at the highest level by enduring a number of abstract skill tests with no room for error. Perhaps they might have to make 20 different shots 20 times in a row each. Anyone who can’t, doesn’t get to play in the NBA. Then, to make it even more absurd, nobody from the team can actually watch the player take those shots- you can’t see how they play, how they prepare for each shot. You only know if they made the shot.
So, the current system doesn’t serve those who can get through it, like Mr. Vinson. One can get through the audition then struggle in the gig.
Likewise, some of the very best orchestral musicians I know don’t excel in auditions for one reason or another. I have friends who are astounding instrumentalists, consummate artists and complete musicians who might just have a phobia about one shift in Don Juan, which they’ve never missed in concert, that keeps them from ever knowing the security of a permanent position. That’s crazy. I’ve known players who’ve made the finals again and again for jobs, who would have been one of the brightest stars in any orchestra they might have joined, who’ve never won a permanent position. This is deeply unfair to them, and to the organizations that miss out on their talents.
Finally, while the screen is supposedly there to protect the candidate, I think more often than not, it protects the members of the committee. I think that if someone has prepared for years to audition for an orchestra, they should be able to see the faces of the people who hold their destiny in their hands. There ought to be maximum accountability on all sides.
Having lived in the UK for most of the last 10 years now, I can confidently say that the system here is better and more humane. It achieves more consistently high results from the player pool, and makes better use of resources. While the details of how the system work varies from orchestra to orchestra, essentially the audition here is just the first step in the process. The purpose of the audition is not to pick a winner of a high-paying job for life, but to identify those candidate who are capable of playing well enough to do the job in question. Successful candidates are then offered a “trial,” which may last anywhere from one gig to a few years. There may be more than one set of auditions for the job, and the trial process goes on until the orchestra, both players and conductor, are convinced they’ve found the right person for the job.
It is in every way a fairer and saner system, for all its flaws.
But don’t listen to me. I knew early on that the orchestra audition circuit was not for me, and I also understand that defenders of the current system often say that only those people who have succeeded in a national audition fully understand the benefits of the system. So don’t take it from me.
I leave you instead with a quote from a fried of mine who retired as section principal from one of the world’s greatest orchestras about ten years ago:
“It was the auditions that did me in,” he said, “I just couldn’t sit there anymore and break the hearts and destroy the dreams of so many people who played better than I did, when I knew the system wasn’t giving them a chance to show what they were really capable of.”
What do you think? Have you taken orchestra auditions? Was your experience anything like that described in the Boston Mag piece? Perhaps your partner or relative has been through the audition circuit and you’ve seen how it affects them? Do you think the system really works or do we need a change?
Please share your thoughts!!!
Part II with some follow-up thoughts is here, but read the comments to this post first.
It was great to return to Mozart’s Symphony no. 36 last week after a long break since my last encounter with it. The last performance I was involved in was not, as they say, entirely satisfying, and sometimes the best thing for one’s relationship with a piece is to set it aside for a while.
More than almost any other piece, I think the Linz tells you a lot about the kind of composer Mozart was. Famously, he wrote it in only four days. In spite of this, I think any musical person will recognize that in those four days, he wrote a masterpiece. For all its beauties, the Linz has never commanded quite the respect accorded the last four Mozart symphonies, especially the G minor and his next and last C major symphony, the Jupiter. Is the Linz a lesser piece than the Jupiter? Well, I suppose so, but not in all categories. Maybe if he’d had six days to write it, he might even have surpassed the Jupiter? More than any of his other works, I think the Linz shows Mozart’s unique mixture of genius and pragmatism.
In many ways, I think the first movement of the Linz is much more beautiful and rather more interesting than that of no. 41. The thematic material is richer and more interesting, not to mention more memorable. The slow introduction in no. 36 is so striking, and incredibly rhetorically interesting- much more original and interesting than the foursquare and rather formulaic opening of no. 41. And has there ever been a symphonic Allegro that opened more beautifully and magically than that of the Linz?
So, why is the Jupiter the greater piece? How can you tell Mozart was working at great speed?
The key is in the developments of the first and last movements. The developments of the first movements of the Jupiter and Linz are on a similarly modest scale, but the Jupiter makes far more use of all the material in the exposition- 90% of the development of the first movement of the Linz comes from one idea in the closing theme. By limiting the scale and ambition of the development of the Linz, Mozart was able to save himself a lot of time sketching or working out how to combine and develop the ideas of the exposition more fully. In the Jupiter, Mozart slightly limits the scale of the development of the first movement to make all the more impressive the development of the Finale.
It’s Finale of the Jupiter which makes the symphony as a whole a strong contender for “greatest symphony ever written.” The development of the last movement of the Jupiter is, quite simply, one of the most astounding things in any field of art or science ever created by a member of the human race, and then Mozart surpasses even that in the Coda. Compare that with the Finale of the Linz- I would contend that the exposition of the last movement of the Linz is just as good and in some ways more interesting than that of the Jupiter, but the development of the Finale in the Linz is pretty pro forma. Mozart just uses one four-bar idea in the development, which he passes around the orchestra in not-very-interesting ways. Imagine the movement he could have written if he’d had the time and inclination to find a way to properly integrate and develop all of the ideas of the exposition? Even for Mozart, that kind of developmental work took time and usually quite a bit of sketching, something he didn’t have time for on his four day deadline.
What is so amazing, however, is that other than these two development sections, the Linz is about the most beautiful, rich and fascinating piece imaginable. One could (and should if you are conducting it) spend hours just decoding the first forty bars of the first movement. Everything in it is so wonderfully detailed, so original and so full of fascinating structural and rhetorical touches that it never ceases to amaze me.
My long-time colleague at the Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop, David Hoose, used to tell the students every year “when you study, sit on your hands.” His point was that you should spend a long, long time thinking about the music before you start trying to figure out how to show it. If ever there was a case in point of the wisdom of David’s advice, it’s the 2nd mvt of the Linz. It’s a piece I’d love to teach one summer, but I fear it is too hard by several orders of magnitude for a teaching situation. This movement needs such nuance and sensitivity, not to mention tons of detail of articulation, and an incredible awareness of light and shade and strong and weak, none of which is really written in the music. As a conductor, you’ve got to either show it all or coach it all (and most players don’t like too much coaching). Either way, if you just get your score out and think “hmm, in six or in two?” before chucking your batons and your Urtext in your leather bag, you may not be screwed, but your musicians and your audience sure are.
Post script- I’ve previously defended the old Breitkopf editions of many of the Mozart symphonies is “not too bad, and certainly useable.” Not in this piece. Said old edition managed to sneak its way on to the musicians stands last week, and it is a mess. Stick with the NMA for this work and avoid the old edition at all costs.
Post- post script- A colleague who was also doing the piece last week remarked on Twitter that the piece needed to be de-Kleiberized. As it happens, I haven’t watched the famous Kleiber film in a long, long time. I had long feared that I hadn’t achieved complete de-Kleiberization in this piece, but after the concert I felt like my own view of the piece had evolved well past my boundless admiration for Kleiber’s performance with the VPO (at least as I remember it). Some time this week, I’ll watch CK again and let you know what I think….
A review from senior critic Christopher Morley at the Birmingham Post of last week’s Orchestra of the Swan performance in Stratford-upon-Avon featuring trumpet virtuoso, Simon Desbruslais. For space reasons, the original review was slightly cut for the print edition, omitting some key detail, so, with the author’s permission, we reproduce his complete, original text here.
Trumpet virtuoso, Simon Desbruslais
By Christopher Morley
Last week I reviewed a bread-and-butter, standard repertoire concert from the Orchestra of the Swan; on Friday this polished, adept ensemble turned its attention to music that could not be more up-to-the-minute, with two world premieres and another major work from the end of the 20th century. And these offerings gripped a well-filled Civic Hall, the audience — and all three composers concerned — marveling at the skill, commitment and sheer tenacity of the steel-lipped Simon Desbrulais, trumpet soloist in these three works.
First up was ‘Skyspace’ by Deborah Pritchard, inspired by the installations of artist James Turrell, shiftingly luminous as unisons between trumpet and strings expand outwards into aural perspectives, its colours and textures well-imagined from this restricted palette. The ending came too soon.
Composer Deborah Pritchard
The other premiere was John McCabe’s ‘Trumpet Concerto, La Primavera’, jazzily lyrical (the slow movement has the soloist adopting Miles Davis’s flugelhorn), crystally-clear brittle, and featuring extensive duetting between soloist and bongo-rich percussion (Jan Bradley, un-named in the programme, but what a star he is). There is a powerful unison between soloist and orchestra as the fabulous ending to this memorable, life-enhancing piece approaches.
Composer John McCabe
Between the premieres came the elder statesman, all of 20 years old. Robert Saxton’s ‘Psalm — A Song of Ascents’ draws its inspiration from biblical references to the trumpet in its various guises, so we certainly get clear-cut fanfaring landmarks amid the work’s tricksy metres. The piece is both gestural and contemplative, often drivingly energetic with coruscating outbursts, but often suffused with bell-coloured magic.
Composer Robert Saxton
Kenneth Woods was the authoritative conductor, communicating warmly with the audience.
Read More http://www.birminghampost.net/life-leisure-birmingham-guide/birmingham-culture/music-in-birmingham/2012/06/22/review-orchestra-of-the-swan-at-civic-hall-stratford-upon-avon-65233-31225159/#ixzz1ytfXQpis
A new review from Robert R Reilly in the June Crisis Magazine of several recent Hans Gál recordings, including Bobby and Hans vol. 1, which he describes as follows:
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“The Third Symphony, which opens with such a gentle, lovely theme on the oboe, then the flute, before the horns zone in more assertively, has simply to be one of the most graceful modern symphonies. There is a haunting Viennese waltz lilting through parts of it. How can anything this lovely – try to resist the gorgeous andante – not have been performed in 55 years, until this superb recording by Kenneth Woods and the Orchestra of the Swan? They and their forces both do equally well with the Schumann …. This is music for those who thought the world had ended, and who can now discover that it didn’t.” [emphasis added]
Reilly’s column (you can read his review of our earlier Gál Violin Concerto disc here) is on of the more diverse and interesting in its breadth—this month, in addition to Gál, he covers music by Braunfels, Rontgen, Fritz Brun, Felix Weingartner (yes, the conductor), Havergal Brian, Enescu, Wolf-Ferrari, Paul Graener and Paul Juon. Yes, that’s all in one month’s column, and not a mention of celebrity crossover discs in sight.
Eighteen months ago in a program planning session, this sentence filled me with dread:
“How about a clarinet concerto?”
Don’t get me wrong- I love the clarinet as much as the next guy, but, in my experience, nobody ever really means “how about a clarinet concerto?”
They almost always mean “how about the clarinet concerto?”
And which, you may ask, is “the” clarinet concerto?
Well, although the first piece I conducted with a good orchestra was the Copland Clarinet Concerto, for most music lovers, and certainly, and more worryingly, most program committees, the Mozart Clarinet Concerto is the only one worth thinking about.
Let me be perfectly clear- the Mozart Clarinet Concerto is everything people say it is. Sublime. Moving. Magical.
At least on the page.
I love the Mozart, but how many times have I heard it played like muzak? How many times has the slow movement ground to a halt? How often do you sit through an entire performance wondering how the clarinetist never seems to notice that he’s just a little flat or a little sharp on every note?
Mozart died at the age of 36, thus mercifully spared hearing too many bad performances of the Clarinet Concerto
And yet, it seems like every time people hear the second movement of this wonderful piece, they manage to convince themselves they’ve experienced a revelation, been touched to their core, been elevated, been cleansed. It is certainly touching testimony as to how much people love Mozart’s music, but I’m sure there is often a huge “Emperor’s New Clothes” factor. Well, call me the cheeky boy in the story, but I’ve sat through, played and even conducted too many gahdaffel performances of the Mozart Clarinet concerto, practically chewing my own arms off to forget the mixture of extreme boredom and frustration. Hearing it is not always the transformative experience it should be.
A special piece ought to deserve a special performance. The very qualities that make the Mozart, well-played, so special- it’s intimacy and fragility- ought to seriously mitigate against it being hacked through or loved to death, but its status as one of the tried-and-true “bums on seats” safe choices of the repertoire means that it has become cannon fodder for far too many dodgy freelance outfits putting it together in 30 minutes of half-hearted rehearsal, or student and amateur groups who might spend 10 weeks learning to play it with a horrible sound. My sister, also a conductor, once explained to the board of one of her orchestras why she wouldn’t let them play Mozart in her first season; “Mozart” she said, “is the string bikini of composers, and I just think that we, as an orchestra, don’t have the body to pull it off yet.” The worst Mozart Clarinet Concerto I ever heard, was not well-meaning-but-technically-limited players, nor an ad hoc freelance outfit, but a TV broadcast by one of the most famous London orchestras several years ago. I still get cranky when I think about it. Was anyone on stage that night listening?
Sometimes the slow movement is played so slowly and over-reverentially that it makes the last movement of Mahler 9 sound like The Flight of the Bumblebee. Sometimes the whole piece just sits there like an uneaten bowl of oatmeal, smooth and creamy, sure, but becoming less appetizing by the second.
Frankly, for me, most performances of this delicate masterpiece seem to evoke the image of a beautiful young girl (the piece) being pawed by a sweaty, hairy and creepy middle-aged man (the performers). Pawed and pawed and pawed- slowly and getting slower, and always out of tune….
Anyway, I’ve conducted it quite a few times and played it gazillions, and there have been some good nights, but also some long ones. Funnily, the best and worst performances I’ve done were with the same clarinetist, which ought to underline how difficult the piece really is. At this stage, I’d like to do it with a clarinet player I have some rapport with, which wouldn’t have been the case in this instance, and in a situation where we could spend a bit of extra time on the orchestra part. In the meantime, the thought of another contribution to the world supply of sleepy and sloppy Mozart doesn’t appeal.
Fortunately, there are other clarinet concertos out there. I do love the Copland, but it is for string orchestra, and we wanted to keep the winds involved. There’s the Nielsen, but it’s a little weird and wasn’t going to fit very elegantly on a program of Haydn and Mozart. Likewise the fantastic Corigliano.
What about Weber?
Composer and vampire, Carl Maria von Weber
At first glance, the thought of conducting a Weber wind concerto might get me chewing my arms off even faster than the Mozart. In fact, although they’re supposed to be standard repertoire, I’ve never heard, conducted or played in a live professional performance of a Weber wind concerto. What I have heard is a lot of students fumbling their way through single movements of the various concertos for their juries and concerto competitions. Most of the time, they’re not quite up to it technically, and they tend to always play the last movements, which are never the most interesting parts of the pieces, with the kind of “passion and commitment” that makes it clear to everyone that they can’t begin to understand why their teacher wouldn’t let them play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto “instead of this shitty Weber rondo.” It’s not the sort of thing that makes you think “wow- I’ve really got to find a chance to conduct that piece!” For me, Weber+Rondo+Student= -KW
But I’ve been re-thinking Weber in the last year. I’ve always loved the Der Freischutz Overture, and Oberon and conduct them often- they’re wonderful, delightful works. Then, last summer, Radio 3 gave Weber a slot on “Composer of the Week” and I was surprised and really impressed at some of the pieces I didn’t know. It turns out Weber was, in the best sense of the word, completely nuts. You’ve got to love any contemporary of Schubert who writes horn multi-phonics. It was great at the end of that week to hear John Elliot Gardiner’s Proms performance of the “French” version of Der Freischutz. Weber was one of the most original and eccentric orchestrators of all time, and this really comes across on period instruments, at least when played so well.
In the end, we managed to entice Michael Collins to join the orchestra for Weber’s First Clarinet Concerto last week, and I’m so glad we did. The first movement is full of Sturm und Drang intensity- not so far from the Wolf’s Glen scene. I even thought of bellowing out “Samiel!!!! Samiel!!!!” a few times in rehearsal, then realized I would appear insane.
The Wolf’s Glen Scene from Der Freischutz. Check out the rabbit. Or maybe don’t…
The operatic mood continues in the lovely second movement, which starts very much in the mood of the horn theme from the overture to Der Freischutz, but with the solo clarinet substituting a beautiful soprano aria for the familiar horn quartet, but then, in the second half of the slow movement, Weber introduces a third horn player for a stunning passage for horn trio and solo clarinet. It’s a passage that is audacious and deeply moving. Yes, the Finale is a little silly compared to what precedes it, but in the hands of someone like Michael Collins, it’s pretty thrilling, and the unmediated juxtaposition profundity and banality ought to be familiar to anyone who knows Weber’s operas. The trick with Weber is to not let the silly bits lessen your regard for the great, weird, original and moving music that usually precedes them.
So- it was great to learn the piece, and wonderful to hear what Michael could do with it. I’m quite sure nobody was missing Mozart in the slow movement, and maybe wasn’t the only one relieved not be thinking “oh god, as slow as it is sharp” again.
The better piece? Mozart, of course.
But which would I rather conduct? Weber. No doubt about it. Better to do a good piece well than to massacre a masterpiece.
And next time your orchestra is thinking about programming the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, strip yourselves down, stand in front a four-way mirror and ask yourselves honestly….
“Do we really have the body for it?”
What do you think? Are there any great pieces out there you can’t hear one more bad performance of? Any good pieces you’d rather hear more often? Am I being unfair? Do you think we need more slow and stodgy Mozart?
Share your comments!!!!
For some time now, the “categories” and “tags” here at VFTP have not been working at all. The crack technical team at Portland Internetworks are hard at work on the problem, and have got them working, but it seems they will only work if we change the permalink format. This may mean that old links to the website don’t work. We’re working on the problem, but in the meantime, I suggest you just use the search box to find anything you like…
Or, our newly functional categories and tags.
If you’re a WordPress guru and would like to offer your advice, all technical tips are welcome.
Robert Saxton’s 1992 trumpet concerto, “Psalm- A Song of Ascents” must be one of the most intense 19 minutes in music history.
Described, with charming self-deprecation, by its composer as “a semi-impossible” piece, it is a dramatic masterwork that pushes soloist, conductor, orchestra and audience to their very limits.
The writing ranges from the unison E that opens the work through some of the thorniest harmonic writing you’re ever likely to hear, to a coda of breathtaking beauty in A major.
When we took the stage to perform it on Friday with my colleagues from the Orchestra of the Swan, and trumpet soloist Simon Desbruslais, I think I can honestly say that nobody was too focused on the nuances of Robert’s harmonic language.
I think we were most concerned with avoiding a train-wreck.
Granted, we’d just recorded the work for Signum, but it had not been feasible to run the entire work during the sessions or the dress rehearsal. The trumpet writing demands staggering virtuosity and super-human endurance, the fiendishly difficult orchestral music is full of rhythmic challenges and traps, and the conductor needs to keep a network of dozens of tempos and tempo relationships, ebbs and flows, firmly under control while navigating a stormy sea of polyrhythms.
Could we manage it?
Well, sometimes a bit of existential fear is just the thing.
Once we got going, it started to feel like we actually knew the piece, and the performance began to take off. How Simon found the chops to rip into the cadenza as he did after 2 days of recording, I will never know. As the piece reached it’s final pages, I wasn’t the only one in the building thinking “holy crap, this is a masterpiece.” I heard the same thing from a number of other players and composers present at the interval. Finally, we reached the coda, with its strangely desolate chords, then the final codetta, where the orchestra finally comes together on a huge, fortissimo “A” unison, then blossoms, gently into a sustained A major, over which Saxton poses the question “A or E-flat” over and over again.
I took a moment to savor that feeling of being punched the stomach by a piece in a good way, lowered my arms, then realized I was grinning broadly. I looked over and Simon was, too. I think we were both pleasantly shocked at how well it had gone, and completely shaken by the piece. I looked to my left and caught the eye of an older lady with tears streaming down her face. A friend of the orchestra who comes to most of their concerts told me at the intermission that she felt like she couldn’t breathe for about a minute. Despite the challenge, despite the difficulty, despite the intensity, everyone seemed to love it, everyone seemed to get it.
And then, at the interval, another friend told me that as I dropped my hands and the audience started to applaud, the gentleman behind him let out a long sigh and said, rather loudly, “thank God that’s over!”
And who was my friend who overheard this strongly expressed minority opinion?
Robert Saxton himself, of course.
Really, who would be a composer?
So, please remember: you never know who you’re sitting next to in life.
Re-blogged from the Ensemble Epomeo website
It’s time for another sneak peek at the liner notes for our upcoming CD.
As you know, we’re right in the thick of an urgent fundraising campaign to get this disc out. We’re going to need to raise about $8000 USD to get this thing out, and need to raise at least $5,000 of that from our current Indiegogo campaign. The great news is that we’re making fantastic progress, and have already reached nearly %25 of our goal. You can help by making your donation, however big or small, and by spreading the word to friends and fellow music-lovers, especially via Facebook and Twitter.
‘If I state that I was influenced by Schönberg, by that I wish to emphasize the fact that I am trying all the more to avoid the emptiness which is so favoured. I try to write in such a way that every bar, every recitative and every note is necessarily a solid part of the whole. This logic, without which every composition has no spirit, can, however, degenerate into mathematic-scientific music if the iron law of opera is not heeded, namely that the sense and aim of opera is the singing. I am sufficiently daring, as a modern composer, to write melodic music.’
Hans Krása, 1938
Czech-born Hans Krása was one of the leading talents of a generation of composers inspired by Mahler, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky. After a string of early successes, Krása took a seven-year break from composition before coming into his full maturity in the 1930s. He is best remembered today for his 1938 children’s opera, Brundibár, a work that would be performed 55 times during Krása’s internment in the Terezin Ghetto during the Second World War.
Krása’s called his first string trio, completed in 1944, Tanec, or ‘Dance,’ but the title seems intentionally misleading. The churning ostinato with which the cello begins the piece is just the first of several bits of music tone-painting that evoke the sound-world of trains, in an atmosphere that ranges from eerie nostalgia, to barely contained menace, to explicit violence. The main dance theme, heard first in the violin, is frequently poised on the edge of mania, finally tipping over the edge on the work’s final page.
The Passacaglia and Fugue from later that same year was Krása’s final completed work. Krása takes these two ancient forms, in which the rules of rhetoric are traditionally engaged to give structure and lucidity to the exchange and development of ideas among independent voices, and profoundly deconstructs them. Rather than contrapuntal engagement leading towards reason and clarity, both the Fugue, and the Passacaglia that precedes it, essentially ‘fail’, as discussion degenerates into argument and argument descends into violence.
The primary theme of the work, the repeated figure that forms the structure of the Passacaglia, is first heard in the cello, but also often present is the ‘dance’ theme of the earlier Tanec. The Passacaglia opens in gravely austere beauty, but in the course of the variations that follow, the emotional temperature gradually rises until all hell breaks loose. After a desolate codetta, the viola begins the Fugue, on a speeded up version of the cello’s Passacaglia theme. The contrapuntal exchanges gradually become more rapid and intense, until, in the coda, the developmental process breaks down. Rather than engaging in reasoned dialogue and perpetual development, the music becomes violent and primitive. The cello repeats the passacaglia/fugue theme obsessively, fortissimo, all pretense of development abandoned, while the violin and viola scream out the ‘Tanec’ theme and the work drives headlong to a terrifying conclusion.
Krása was deported by train to Auschwitz alongside his fellow composers Gideon Klein, Viktor Ullmann and Pavel Haas on 16 October 1944 and was killed in the gas chambers two days later.
We couldn’t be more excited aout the fact that Gramophone Magazine has selected the Orchestra of the Swan’s new recording Hans Gal’s Symphony no. 4 and Robert Schumann’s Symphony no. 2 as a “Gramophone Choice” for the month of July. The July edition of Gramophone was released on the 8th of June and is available everywhere. You can hear an extract from the CD on the Gramophone Player here, and read the full review from critic Guy Rickards here. A short sample of the review follows.
“In addition to the remarkable limpidity of Gál’s scoring, the overall atmosphere is lyrically pastoral. But appearances are deceptive, as Woods notes in his intelligent booklet-notes, noting the music’s ‘intense rigour and deep concentration’ where what ‘seems the simplest and most straightforward…proves to be the most sophisticated and complex’. There are lighter moments aplenty, particularly in the second and fourth movements (framing the beautiful Duetto: Adagio), respectively a gentle evocation of Harlequin and Columbine and a ‘Buffoneria’, the title of which does no justice to its subtle design.
The Orchestra of the Swan provide a quietly compelling account, relishing the many solos, duos and textural intricacies that Gál wrings from his orchestra. Their account of Schumann’s C major brings playing necessarily of greater fire. While Zinman’s just still remains first choice, Woods’s finely wrought interpretation confirms his credentials – if confirmation were needed – as a symphonic conductor of stature… Strongly recommended.”
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