Review: Violinist Daniel Pioro plays Beethoven Sonata Op.96, Biber and Lark Ascending at Wigmore Hall

Daniel Pioro is an intriguing performer with a gentle presence on stage. He moves and speaks with intent. His body follows the trajectory of the music he’s playing. And he plays with a delicate kind of sweetness I’ve not heard before.

These characteristics alone made the cool clear air of Wigmore Hall an ideal setting for Pioro’s performance style.

But there was, from the moment he walked on stage, an other-worldliness to Pioro that made this an unusual experience for the listener.

Pioro has a stillness about him that sets a slower pace for the audience member long before he starts to play.

There is no flourish, razzmatazz or affectation when arriving on stage, only natural rhythm. Calmness descends, the bow rises and falls, and the notes sound. The mechanics of the process are left far behind (in the dressing room). What we see is music being drawn in front us.

It’s clear where Pioro most feels at one: long expanding melodic material that expands over a long period of time, supported by an emotional maturity that was solid and unwavering. The adagio of the Beethoven violin sonata in G was a case in point, though his most sonorous sound was reserved for Clare O’Connell’s deft arrangement of Vaughan Williams Lark Ascending for violin, viola, cello and piano. Here Pioro exchanged the bright sweetness he’d deployed in the Beethoven with something richer and rounder.

The pathos of the Lark Ascending was brought to the fore inducing a few tears to roll down the cheek. But, it was Biber Passacaglia in G minor that opened the programme that I especially enjoyed. More and more I’m appreciating those musical introductions which transition the audience from outdoor to indoor experience.

Here Pioro thrived, at ease on the stage bringing that trademark stillness to bear at the beginning of the work before making small moves from left to right of stage as he played. This created an unexpected sense of inclusion and intimacy to proceedings. At tones during the Biber there was even the sense that he was accompanying the music on stage rather than playing it. Again, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that before. A quite moving affair.

That I found Daniel Pioro’s performance intriguing wasn’t entirely down to his rare sense of style (it’s worth flagging that the suit was a nice looking thing too), but the range of music he offered up and one or two biographical details too.

A recent Bedroom Community release entitled Dust sees him play a new work written for him by Edmund Finnis – Elsewhere. (Be sure to listen to the unusual arrangement for Lark Ascending there too.)

He’s also appearing at the Proms this summer with a new work by Jonny Greenwood (it will be interesting to see how that stillness translates to the Royal Albert Hall).

And personally speaking, I recall marvelling at his musicality in an ensemble setting during a stunning SCO concert in Kings Place last year. He also has connections with Manchester Collective. The man can switch between genres and locations with relative ease it seems.

One to watch.

Review: Nicola Benedetti plays Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto in D with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Cristian Măcelaru

A rip-roaring fusion of musical styles documenting the travels of violinist Nicola Benedetti

Decca’s new release is a glorious recording of Marsalis’ captivating violin concerto, premiered in 2015, paired with his Fiddle Suite. The Fiddle Suite is good. Intense and intimate, hits the spot.

The focus on my attention has, since the first time I heard this recording, been on the concerto. Marsalis’ writing is efficient. Captivating drama abounds in a work brimming with tantalising textures and colours that evoke far-away lands.

The opening Rhapsody sees Marsalis combine a hint of English post-war pastoral style with Gershwin and a whiff of Copland, before easing the orchestra into a Bernstein homage replete with spidery solo line from the violin. A seemingly never-ending series of beautiful vignettes follows in a short space of time. Listening to this there are moments when I feel like I’m watching an MGM on a rainy Sunday afternoon. An cacophonous urban soundscape follows before we’re returned to something altogether more serene. A blissful harmonic indulgence nearly concludes the movement save for a whimsical jig squeezed into the final bars.

The second movement aptly-named Rondo Burlesque commands attention from the off with material which passes quickly through what feels like a subject, development and recapitulation all in the space of a few minutes. The candenza that follows – a dialogue between solo line and rhythm percussion is a gripping demonstration of Benedetti’s artistic commitment, and the ease at which she switches from one musical style to another. A tour de force performance of a gripping score. I’m sure I hear some rock reference in there somewhere towards the end.

Blues is a steaming theatrical number complete with vocal performances from the band and trombone imitations that concludes in what Marsalis describes as abject loneliness, but I prefer to look on as an introverts paradise.

And the last movement. A tub-thumping hootenanny that casts a shadow (albeit respectfully) on Copland’s Rodeo.

It amazes me the BBC Proms hasn’t snapped up this work yet. It must surely make an appearance in the next few years.

The concerto isn’t only a compositional triumph for Marsalis or another solid performance in the Bennedetti canon, but also something of a marketing win for Decca. In their 90th anniversary year I’ve struggled with the Decca narrative. They’re keen to celebrate their eclecticism, and seemingly desperate to emphasise their youth credentials. Some of the messaging around promoting Jess Gillam and Sheku Kanneh Mason has seemed a little obvious, for example; the content itself deliberately curated for mass appeal.

But this release feels like more of what I’d expect from the Decca brand: an exciting collaboration between two exciting creatives, aligning the work of a present-day jazz legend who knows how to create appealing new material with our most prized present-day UK classical musicians.

Nicola Benedetti’s recording of Wynton Marsalis Violin Concerto in D with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Cristian Măcelaru is released on Decca on 12 July.

Kris Garfitt at the Royal Overseas League Gold Medal Final

Trombonist Kris Garfitt wins Royal Overseas League Gold Medal Final 2019

ROSL remains a jewel of a competition, generously supported, and featuring a slew of engaging performances. More influencers should keep a closer eye on it.

Guildhall School graduate Kris Garfitt secured the coveted Gold Medal (and a £15K prize) at the Royal Overseas League Final last night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London with dazzling theatrics, charming modesty, and seemingly effortless musicianship.

His programme includeD pieces by Ropartz, Weber, and an entertaining showpiece by Folke Raba called Basta.

Chief judge (and the only man I know of who looks good in a spotty bow tie) Gavin Henderson led a considerable collection of eminent judges, and made good use of his platform before announcing the winner to draw attention to the ever-increasing demands student musicians face. A bleak future awaits those of us who take for granted the opportunity to peer at new musical talent year after year. The Royal Overseas League competition does much to fill the financial gap for a handful of the most talented.

My money was – no statement on the actual winner – on 22-year-old violinist Roberto Ruisi. Self-assured with a solid tone, out of all of the performers Ruisini took me on a journey throughout his unaccompanied Bartok sonatas. Some slips early on, eclipsed by remarkably focussed playing that come unassuming end left me hanging on a thread.

I enjoyed 24-year-old bass William Thomas thoughtfully put together programme, and in particular the opener, Brahms’ Feldeinsamkeit. Throughout his time on stage Thomas widened eyes and set hearts beating faster with a rich warm sound and precise delicate articulation. Sometimes his voice felt a little under-powered in the QEH acoustic and occasionally vowels sounded like they needed opening out at the top of his range. There warm a gratifying simplicity to his stage presence which made a possible contender for me.

Where Thomas built his programme around his strengths, pianist Joseph Havlat presented a programme which illustrate his personality as an artist. His was an unassuming presence on stage; expectations were subverted by Havlat’s dry humour in Poulenc’s playful Promenades.

The eye-catching performances of the evening were perhaps from those who had already won their categories, those showcasing whilst judges deliberated.

The Miras Trio are super-charged musicians who play with a mature kind of musicianship that belies their age. Electrifying as they were, it was The Hermes Experiment who stole the show. I’ve seen their continued rise on social media – evidence if raw talent, focus and enviable commitment – and assumed that they’ve already secured their position in the industry. I’m hoping that participation in ROSL helps widen their platform. Every performer brings an infectious energy to the stage and, speaking as a lapsed clarinettist, Oliver Pashley’s tone, articulation and all-round Pied Piper-iness is compelling. If you’re at one of their gigs and they’re asking for requests, be sure to ask for Meredith Monk’s Double Fiesta. Vocalist Heloise Werner is a marvel performing the Iberian-infused scat.

Overall this was well-produced event too. Speeches were short and punchy, with all but the most important prize winner left for the post-performance presentation.

ROSL remains a jewel of a competition, generously supported, and featuring a slew of engaging performances. More influencers should keep a closer eye on it.

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s Music in Summer Air Festival: there are other worlds out there

One press release about a music festival on the other side of the world triggers all manner of questions about a little known subject

At (yet another) febrile moment in the UK’s politics when a remainer Prime Minister clings on to power in a desperate bid to get her questionable Brexit deal over the line and cast the country off into the brave new world of global trade, news from China has piqued my interest.

Earlier this week International Trade Secretary Liam Fox sought to demonstrate his efforts in selling the UK’s strengths to the world with an announcement about how British music was ..

And yesterday, an announcement that the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s 10th Music in the Summer Air Festival (2 – 15 July) featuring a selection of high profile UK classical music brands are venturing east to put their best foot forward.

I’m intrigued by the announcement. Not cynical. Obviously.

It’s more evidence of a strategy people were trumpeting at the ABO conference in Cardiff back in January 2018. Whilst most were picking over the various permuatations surrounding Brexit (they were, inevitably, doing a similar thing this year and will no doubt next year too), some management types were encouraging their peers to look further afield.

At the time this challenging outlook appeared pragmatic. Now I see it realised in another China-related announcement, its less of novelty and more of a thing that’s actually happening.

What raises my eyebrows is the way the existence of an familiar market on the other side of the world challenges my assumptions about classical music audiences across the world.

For all the understandable worry and lobbying around the catastrophic impact of Brexit, there are some in the industry who have done the only thing they think they can and seized the opportunity that greets them. What I’m interested in is who the audience is that the likes of the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony are pursuing out in China.

What is it about that market that is so appealing? Is it altruism? Is culture being used to deepen international relations? Or are there financial gains to be made, channels to be dug, and new audiences to be tempted? And what does the appetite for western classical music in the East say about the popularity of the music that originates from China? Where did that appeal originate? And what is Chinese symphonic music? Who are the people who are attending these concerts? What is the appeal to them? And how does the appeal they perceive for the music in China help compare to the classical music world here in the UK and the US, for example?

The NY Phil and the BBC Symphony aren’t the first of course. Far from it. The LSO went to China last year (albeit with a considerable array of developmental partners, suggesting that a tour of China is far from a cash cow). So too the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Halle. The London Philharmonic was the first to visit China in 1973.

These are the kind of questions that fly around when another press release arrives in your inbox referencing China at the same time the UK is vacillating over a European outlook versus the supposed tantalising opportunities presented by free trade deals across the world. It’s probably a podcast. Or at best a series of interviews. Who knows, even an article for someone.

Music in Summer Air marks the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra‘s 140th anniversary and features a series of concerts given by China’s oldest orchestra, many of which will be in the Shanghai Symphony Hall which, now I search for pictures of it on Google, appears to be utterly gorgeous.

Very pleased to see composer Raymond Yiu making an appearance on the programme with his work Xocolatl in what amounts to a Last Night of the Proms-esque type programme with the BBC Symphony and Andrew Davis. Also good for Colin Currie and his band of merry percussionists taking Steve Reich to Shanghai.

The programme as a whole isn’t going to scare the horses. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Mozart and Britten.

My attention is particularly drawn to the Shanghai Youth Orchestra appearances, because its there that some of the answers to that stream of questions could be found.

Music in Summer Air runs from 2nd – 15th July 2019 in Shanghai, China

The curious case of composer Alexey Shor

How a former mathematician’s curiosity shines a new light on the process of composing

“Music was always around me. But, as far as playing music was concerned, it was never on the cards. As a kid I was a maths prodigy. It was always assumed I would grow up a scientist, or a mathematician, or at worst a physicist.

Composer Alexey Shor speaks matter of factly about his transition from ‘prodigy mathematician’ to composer when we meet during the Malta International Music Festival.

“I started writing music very late in life and mostly for my own entertainment. And then by pure accident it got noticed by David Aaron Carpenter and he started playing it in all of his concerts and it went from there.”

He speaks softly, with a mildly percussive edge. There’s a simplicity to his tone. Dark eyes and a half smile give him a childlike look – someone curious about a new world.

He leans in to speak into the microphone. I do the same.

His ability to learn a new discipline quickly set him on a new career path six years ago.

“I always loved music. I’m a concert junkie. I probably go to two concerts a week when I’m in New York. At some point I was curious just to see how it is that music is written down.

“You go to a concert and its like an ocean of sound. I was just curious what those dots on the paper mean. So, I read a book about music theory. Then I thought, let me see whether I can remember what I read in that book. So, I wrote variations on a theme of Happy Birthday. It was so new and so entertaining to me that I could actually create music that I kept doing it without any ambition to be professional.”

Since then the American-Maltese composer has had his music recorded by various orchestras and now features on releases on Warner Classics with viola player David Carpenter.

Shor epitomises the on-demand information age we now live in: curiosity-driven learning that highlights the rarefied regard in which we hold the creation of art. There’s usually an answer to be found on the internet for any challenge we might be posing. A shortcut perhaps.

Using a book to crack the musical code seems in comparison like a retro-approach to feeding that curiosity. But there are plenty of other composers who have spent years studying and practising their craft, following conventional learning paths who, for one reason or another, give up on their craft. Has Alexey Shor found a different way of learning the creative process?

Possibly. What he also illustrates is a scientific perspective on the process of composing.

“What really surprised me is how coherent music theory is. It’s not created by scientists. It’s not created by people who since the age of five are being yelled at for every single logical mistake. There’s a body of good music written by some people, and then other people try to formalise it and turn it into a bunch of rules. That sort of endeavour by itself seems doomed to failure.

“You have a large body of work – take Shakespearean poetry. Then you tell someone who is nowhere near Shakespearean talent – take that poetry and work out how to write in that style. Probably nothing good is going to come out. But music theory is a good product. These people who were not Bach, they did formulate rules. You follow those rules and music comes out. It may be good music or bad music, but it is tonal music. I think it’s amazing that music theory exists.”

This different perspective challenges my own path to understanding and appreciating music and music history. Is there, it now dawns on me clawing for a well-worn British phrase in my head, more than one way to skin a cat.

“People who wrote the best music ever – like Bach – he was not aware of these rules. We don’t know what was in his head. Somehow people distilled his work down into a bunch of rules. Usually when that happens you end up with something like ‘Here is the rule but there are hundreds of exceptions, and even if you follow it nothing good will come out.’ But music theory does work. Chord progressions sound like they go somewhere. You can hear proper counterpoint versus wrong counterpoint. I was just amused and amazed that such a thing exists.”

“Do you consider yourself a rebel?” I ask Alexey.

“No.”

Challenging definitions

Unlike other living composers, describing Shor’s music is by comparison unusually demanding. Comparisons often used to help prepare newcomers to a musical genre – a way of preparing the ear for something unusual to come. Music is either judged by its popularity or artistic merit, with popularity held in less regard. In an increasingly fractured on-demand world, labels have become a necessity. That labelling is problematic because of the conventional history of music we assume: one of ‘progression’. Progression is the is the story humans understand. But when the music seemingly subverts that story of progression by what has gone before to create something that appeals to as wide an audience as possible now, describing it isn’t just difficult but risks judgment.

You go to a concert and it’s like an ocean of sound. I was just curious what those dots on the paper mean. So, I read a book about music theory. Then I thought, let me see whether I can remember what I read in that book.

Shor’s music is rooted in tonality. It’s melodic. It’s easy on the ear. It follows convention. And it also sounds familiar. When I first hear it I can’t quite determine whether I connect with it or not. And that makes writing about it challenging.

Shor is forty-eight years old. Before that he was a mathematician, the son of two scientists in a family of non-musicians. His mother was reportedly shocked when he turned his back on science.

“My Mum said that when I was a kid she could have named twenty things I could have potentially been good at but music wasn’t on that list. Everybody was so used to the idea that things technical came easily to me and I enjoyed them. So given those things why would I do anything else?”

What was her reaction to the variations?

“She was amused. She was like ‘OK, so he has read another book and he’s remembered another bunch of things.’” Does that reaction bother him? “No, nobody expected it to go any further.” And when it did go further? “Then they were surprised.”

The turning point for Alexey was the discovery of his music by viola player David Aaron Carpenter who sought out the composer and asked him to arrange a piece for viola and orchestra.

“I couldn’t do it, but me and a friend did it together. David kept writing from the tour that he played the music on that it was going well, and that it was being asked for two or three times over, and that there were standing ovations.

“I thought, like, ‘OK, musicians. They’re prone to exaggeration.’ So, me and my parents went to one of David’s concerts at the Metropolitan Museum. Once he played that one piece of mine – he calls it his ‘replacement Cazardas’. It was a little shocking to me and my parents. That was the moment when it dawned on me, ‘maybe this isn’t a joke, maybe I should take it more seriously. It’s an amazing thrill to this day that my music is played.”

“I love writing for the orchestra. You’re not limited by anything. The orchestra can create all sorts of sounds. Whereas even if you’re writing for a piano, you’re still limited by what a human can do. I love the variety you can get out of the orchestra. I don’t know I would call it a machine like you say or a spectacle. It’s more the infinite variety I like.”

“Melancholy is very common for my music. Some kind of sadness is present in my music and life in general. This is all wonderful but this is all going to an end – that’s always in the background.”

Shifting perspective

Miran Vaupotic conducted the final gala concert in the Malta International Music Festival. We met shortly before the concert.

“Alexey’s music lacks pretension,” he explains. “It’s music people enjoy listening to. And the musicians who play it recognise that the audience are enjoying it.”

Our brief exchange about Shor’s work marked an important shift in my thinking. Classical music lovers and performers strive for a listening experience where a connection is established in the moment. Implicit in that hope is the expectation that establishing the connection will require active engagement in the art. Once the connection is established the pay-off is rewarding for both parties.

What if an audience member isn’t striving for a hard-fought emotional connection? Material that creates a connection between performer and listener that takes the latter where they want to go as quickly as possible seems like a perfectly reasonable proposition. It’s good business sense too. Live performance doesn’t necessarily mean being transported to another astral plane every time, does it? I know plenty of live performers whose repertoire pays tribute to particular genres or bands. They play to sell-out audiences, rocking, tapping, or fist-slamming. Why should classical music be any different?

Shor draws on the music he responds to and composes in such a way that evokes all of those styles. The first music I heard by him mid-way through the festival had a curious quality to it: melodic material that conjured up multiple eras all in one cell – the musical equivalent of a video jump cut. It worked, even if instinct suggested otherwise.

Compositional process

Later in the interview, I ask Alexey about his compositional process. I feel uncomfortable being quite so nosey. If anyone asked me how I wrote a blog post in an interview I’d feel slightly put out.

“Sometimes I have a lot of clarity about what it is. Sometimes I’ll have a musical idea and I don’t know what it is. Maybe a day or so later I look at it again, and most of the time I just delete the file. Sometimes I’ll look at it and think maybe this should have a life. In some way I write for an audience of one which is me. I imagine myself in a concert hall and think, ‘if I heard this would I enjoy it? Would I ever want to hear it again?’ If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then maybe this piece has a future.”

I can’t argue with this logic. I adopt the same stance myself in my creative endeavours. If the output doesn’t satisfy you as an audience member, then who will it satisfy?

But Alexey’s compositional process exposes another outdated assumption I hold about creativity: creative ideas are seemingly only valid if they exist initially on paper. Despite knowing that composers use Sibelius and other music-writing software, I’m aware that I’m making an unconscious judgment about those who do. Why can’t writing music be approached in the same way as a recipe, or writing computer code?

Members of the Trio Wanderer – three Parisians on their first visit to Malta performing a programme of Schubert and Saint-Saens – help me contextualise Shor’s writing with reference to the seven-piece Trio they were playing in the concert.

In the last movement – Schubertango – Shor takes familiar Schubertian melodies and gives them both a Latin American feel. Every now and again, melodies I recall from my student days seem to bound and flash around like a television being tuned from the 1960s.

“It’s an odd thing,” I say to pianist Vincent Coq after the Trio’s rehearsal, “I hear the melodies and it’s almost like as soon as I’ve heard them they’re snatched away from me again. It makes me want to reach out for the original. I can’t put my finger on what it is.”

“We hear it as a musical joke,” replies violinst Jean-Phillipe. “The composer is taking fragments of melodies he likes and playing with us. It‘s very effective. I think it’s an homage to Schubert. An homage to all the composers Shor likes.”

The word ‘homage’ resonates with me. A sort of musical fanboy creation. The kind of creation that perhaps we don’t get to hear in the UK classical music scene. Suffocated before its given air to breathe.

There is an evident resourcefulness to Shor’s methodical and process-driven approach. Throughout the Malta International Music International Festival, we’ve heard not only musical references to composers of the past, but repurposed material by Shor himself.

The first movement of the ‘Seven Pieces for Piano Trio’, for example, entitled Addio – a tender melody exchanged between violin and piano – becomes a heartfelt pang for soprano and orchestra. Whilst the Trio Wanderer’s expressiveness created character in the melodic lines, the orchestral setting in the gala concert gave a fuller, more satisfying feel to the end product.

Indeed, in most regards the larger the forces, the easier it is to discern the intent, material, and the form. Another song in the gala concert – Natalie’s Waltz – part Viennese, part Italian Verdi-esque cast an unexpectedly captivating spell over the audience at the Mediterranean Conference Centre. Sweet and touching, if you’d have looked at the list of programme listed in the programme and seen Shor you’d be forgiven for thinking he was alive at the same time as Verdi.

And that surely is the rather astute thing.

In an ever fractured on-demand world audience requests are demanding ever more specific requirements and more quickly. If the existing ‘standard’ repertoire comes with a perceived knowledge requirement, maybe it’s perfectly pragmatic and eminently business-like to write music in a language that appeals to audiences quicker. Perhaps the answer isn’t that marketers need to find the answer to the impossible question of how best to sell high-art music to the newcomer, but instead commission and perform music that the newcomer is most likely to enjoy and pay tickets to listen to.

And that’s one aspect of Alexey Shor’s ability that I admire and am possibly a little jealous of too. Just like the peer at school who was able to listen to a piece of music and play it from ear, Shor possesses the ability to capture the characteristics of a genre, mechanics of a framework, or the style of a melody, and recreate it in a format that audiences will respond to.

If there are people who want to enjoy an orchestral experience but want the music they hear in it to get to the point quickly, then there’s a need for composers to write in a style that’s accessible for just the right amount of time. The skill is delivering the right product under those particular constraints. That’s just what composers of British Light Music achieved in the 1940s and 50s. Why not now?

Dreams and aspirations

“Where would you like to go next?” I ask Alexey.

“It would be nice to write an opera, but even if I had an offer, I’m not sure I would take it. If you mean dreams then opera is an amazing dream to have. It may never happen.”

I ask him about what the motivation is behind that dream. Is it about scale or legacy?

“I love opera. I love the sound of human voice. At the same time, it is much easier to sit down and write an orchestral piece, than write a collaborative work. That’s why it’s more of a distant dream.”

He continues.

“There are a lot of things that need to happen before an opera can happen. If I was in this world for 50 years as opposed to 6 then chances are I would have all sorts of friends amongst whom there would be a librettist with whom we see eye to eye. Then there is a question of language. Italian is an amazing language for opera, but I don’t speak Italian.”

Recalibrated

On my journey home I’m reminded of something else conductor Miran Vauptic mentioned in my interview with him. We raised the point about how if Alexey Shor was writing film music then I wouldn’t feel the need to ask how others should be categorising his output. “What he needs next,” said Vauptic, “is a commission for a TV soundtrack.”

When the plane touches down at Gatwick Airport, a message pops up on my phone. A tweet from Scala Radio, advertises their chart show rundown on-air later in the morning, featuring “classical and classical-inspired music”. Is this the label I’ve been looking for all week?

Quotes from this article are taken from a podcast recorded with Alexey Shor on Wednesday 7 May 2019. The full podcast interview will be released as a Thoroughly Good Good Classical Music Podcast in the coming weeks.