Remembering Grenfell Tower

The unimaginable terror of being trapped in a burning tower block hangs low this week.

Displaced residents search in desperation for missing loved ones. The rest of us look on the high-rise tomb on Latimer Road – a now potent monument to inequality, and ineffective leadership. We ponder what part we played in permitting this state of affairs.

Music-making tradition often seeks to reflect on tragic moments in the performance of meaningful works – classical music’s way to pay respect.

But what works? And how to remember?

The Problem with Elgar

Elgar seems trite in his noble aspiration, a musical representation of the detachment this tragedy highlights. That residents feel so angry at their lack of support in the days after such brutal loss that they march on council offices and Downing Street, then the country hangs his head ashamed. If we can’t get that right, we’re going to find it difficult to look people in the eye across the world with pride, hope, or even regret.

Elgar feels like an anachronism right now.

Mahler 9 – Fourth Movement, Adagio

The adagio from Mahler’s 9th symphony acts a twenty-five exploration of our place in all of this. Painful, torturous beauty. A meditation that highlights a complex mix of thoughts and feelings in response to the stories which have unfolded since Wednesday 14 June.

Stitched into every melodic line is sorrow, regret, and determination. The solo violin around five minutes in, is exquisitely channelled rage of the kind I’ve heard in the voices of commentators and journalists all this week.

Strauss and Britten

Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen written in the closing months of the second world war, establishes a sombre mood but concludes with an ill-fitting sense of resolution.

The Lacrymosa from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem on the other hand, maintains an emotional incongruity throughout, and in true Britten style it’s finished just as we recognise it’s healing effects.

Brahms German Requiem

The exquisite but restless opening of Brahms’ German Requiem brings a much-needed moment of calm, underpinned by a sleeping giant that could, if provoked, rise up in retribution. “Blessed are they who bear suffering” sings the chorus.

The restlessness continues in the solemn funeral march Brahms wrote for the second movement of the requiem “For all flesh, it is as grass”. And here the anguish of those who are left behind come into play: a funeral march for those who will never be identified or whose remains will never be recovered.

Mahler’s 5th symphony, Adagietto

Mahler’s intensely personal writing is what I keep to returning to. The adagietto from the 5th symphony – a breathtaking creation in and of itself – focuses attention back on the victims, casting them in a moment of imagined happiness. A futile attempt to bestow on them a modicum of respect after such a barbarous demise.

Ayres No.42 (In the Alps – an animated concert) / Brahms Symphony No.1 / Aurora Orchestra

The Aurora Orchestra are rocket fuel for the UK classical music scene.

The most exciting orchestra around – the Aurora Orchestra – is brimming with youthful vigour and drive. A reflection of their tousled conductor Nicholas Collon no doubt, whose enthusiasm, charm, and poise is underpinned by a powerful vision and enviable self-belief.

Richard Ayres comic melodrama No. 42 (In the Alps) combined silent movie visuals with chamber orchestra and voice, in an engaging piece of entertainment. Ayres’ efficient story-telling supported a pacey plot, suggesting a context for the inspiration Brahms found for the fourth movement horn solo of his first symphony. A pleasing flight-of-fancy that made for a compelling programme. Ayres deploys an inventive, rich, and resourceful compositional technique and creates a sophisticated piece of entertainment – a gateway for the wider repertory.

Aurora’s performance of Brahms 1 had a sense of urgency about it. It was brisk, taut and precise too. There might even have been grit too (though my plus one for the even thinks there are negative connotations with the word grit). Standing up and playing from memory – the band’s USP – meant that everyone had the space to express. The sound was expansive, the dynamic range breathtaking, and the resulting applause unequivocal and insistent.

It’s a treat to see so many musicians so engaged on the platform, not only with their conductor, but with one another. The players engage with the audience. We engage with them. Everyone ends up leaving the concert venue having had a riotously good time. The Aurora Orchestra conjure up something magical on stage.

Special words should be committed for some cracking programme notes: unorthodox design, playful, and utterly refreshing. Lovely work people. Lovely work.

The Aurora Orchestra are appearing at the Grange Festival from 25 June in a production of Britten’s Albert Herring conducted by Steuart Bedford.

BBC Proms 2016 / 37: BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform Brahms Symphony No. 4

I combined a long walk to Greenwich and back with listening back to last night’s Prom.

The sun was bright but the air, especially in the shade was cool and refreshing. I managed a respectable average of 17 minutes per mile. Sweat poured down my neck at central Blackheath. A state of mild euphoria was reached somewhere in Greenwich Park. Total walk 8 miles. Completed in 2 hours 33 minutes.  I will be thin again.

Last night’s Prom was 2 hours 30 minutes and its contents made it the perfect companion to my walk.

First, an entertaining discovery – Walton’s Partita. A hugely accessible and entertaining three-movement curtain raiser that had some members of BBC NOW’s string section feeling slightly under pressure.  The premiere of Huw Watkins cello concerto composed for his brother Paul wasn’t quite as absorbing as I thought it might be. It wasn’t difficult to listen to but, at the same time, I did notice that my mind wandered just a little.

It may be the case that I was gearing up for the interval feature. There was a time when Radio 3 used to produce quirky but rich content as an interval ‘escape’ for listeners. The Twenty Minutes strand sometimes picked up on a theme in the concert, had a direct link to the programme or in some cases, went off at a complete tangent. I rather liked them, a short extended radio package that could surprise and delight.

Now, the interval feature is always a discussion from the Proms Extra pre-performance talk pre-recorded an hour or so before the concert. Sometimes they’re really informative. Last night’s Proms Extra on Brahms 4th symphony was an event with a special significance. Robert ‘Bob’ Samuel joined Laura Tunbridge and presenter Martin Handley.

Bob was one of my tutors at university. He either taught me music harmony or musicology, I can’t remember which. What I do recall was how Bob, along with Alain Frogley, Roger Bray, Denis McCaldin, and a tall fusty-smelling man who taught me keyboard harmony whose name I can’t quite recall, were the dream team undergraduate music degree lecturers – a rare combination of skill, passion, experience, and knowledge in every single one.

I hadn’t heard Bob’s voice for 25 years or so. We’ve connected on Facebook but never met. I used to think I could recall his voice from my undergraduate days, but the voice that spoke knowledgeably of Brahms and Schumann playing chess came as a surprise. Far deeper than my memory recalls, though I recognised the enthusiasm for his subject, the ocassional turn of phrase and the love of detail.

It got me thinking about something I’ve often wondered: if I feel an appetite for the subject, why am I not going further with it and studying masters? The answer might be that I’m not entirely clear whether it would be of any use. Would it be worth the investment in time and how would I apply it in the future? What doors would it open?

Brahms 4 is a special piece. Rich and complex, there are rapturous almost modern depictions of pastoral landscapes with many of the hints of academia I appreciate in Brahms’ music. I don’t know exactly what those characteristics are – perhaps the broad brushes from a rich legato string section? But, they hasten the approaching autumn and the new school year. Brahms’ music never fails to satisfy. It doesn’t so much heal, rather than nourish. In that respect Brahms is quite close in musical effect on the soul as JS Bach is. Brahms is just a lot more German about it.

More importantly perhaps, it was the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ performance which stood out once again. The second consecutive night at the Royal Albert Hall and their final London appearance of this Proms season, the band has continued to go from strength to strength in recent years. I’ve always walked away from one of their concerts surprised.

Of all of the Corporation’s orchestras, I often wonder whether BBC NOW has to work harder at its UK-wide and global reputation. I’m not entirely sure why. It might be because in recent years their name has been associated with Doctor Who and other large-scale dramas, not in itself a negative thing on their CV, but in my conscientiousness it’s their TV work they’re known for before the more orthodox orchestral repertoire. One is not better or worse than the other, of course. If anything, the sign of a healthy orchestra in terms of finances and reach is surely that it covers lots of ground and reaches a variety of different audience groups.

For me, it’s when I hear them play with the kind of steeliness and grit of the kind I’ve heard over the last two Proms this season that I get to feeling really proud of them (odd given that I have nothing to do with them). Performances with them feel harder fought as a result. Brahms 4 was no exception. This performance bears closer scrutiny and repeat listens.

© Aline Paley

Verbier 2016: Beethoven String Quartet Op.130 and Brahms Clarinet Quintet

The Quatuor Ebene gave a dazzling performance of Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat major op.130 earlier this evening at the Eglise in Verbier. It was a monumental achievement.

Written a year before his death, Beethoven’s op.130 is a complex work taking the uninitiated on a long and sometimes arduous journey from youthful exuberance and passion, through intense loss, and ultimately into grief-fuelled mania. There is hope at the end of the phenomenally demanding finale (we heard all six movements of the original edition), but there isn’t a sense of lasting stability.

Quatuor Ebene’s committed performance throughout was what hooked me in. An electrifying presto and playful andante provided light relief amid the tempest and exuberance elsewhere. The childlike theme treated to a swift series of variations entertained but they also threatened with a dark edge.

The players shone throughout, each with a distinct personality but no one individual dominating. The chemistry between viola player and cellist was especially touching. It was the finale where they really showed their metal, intertwined with the unrelenting descent into mania and beyond, right until the end. They displayed great stamina and rose to the challenge presented by this profoundly moving score.

After the brutality of the Beethoven, clarinettist Martin Frost’s warm tone in Brahms clarinet quintet cushioned us. The lilting sweet melody in the opening allegretto did the rest.

The quintet – sensitively programme as an antidote to what had gone before – may have been a musical escape within slightly-easier-to-handle boundaries, but the group never lost the necessary urgency the work demands of its interpreters.

The second movement adagio was a ravishing serenade that strayed into near operative territory with pseudo-recitatives over which the clarinet soared with grand statements. The movement’s conclusion was exquisite.

Frost is a phenomenal instrumentalist. His fluid lines, rich, rounded tone, and effortless articulation are a joy to behold. Watching him reminds me of the difficulties I experienced trying to achieve the same – I failed dismally.

But his partnership with Quatuor Ebene made for a delicious experience, transporting those of left in tatters after the Beethoven to a place where we could at least see a beacon of hope shining brightly somewhere in front of us.

All images © Aline Paley

Verbier 2016: Bartok, Brahms and Schubert

If you want an introduction to chamber music and get a flavour of just how rewarding it can be, the Verbier Festival should be on your list.

Performances here are the product of the community spirit that underpins the Festival. The concerts are collaborations between friends whose mastery of their instrument comes in a close second to an unequivocal passion for their art.

The spirit which emanated from the stage sets the bar high: this is what the music was written for, anything less than what you see here probably isn’t worth listening to.

In Bartok’s Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin and Piano opened the programme; clarinettist Martin Frost coerced, taunted, and cajoled with a sometimes devilish balletic presence. The menacing first movement gave way to a plaintiff second featuring an exquisitely sweet high melody from violinist Leonidas Kavakos. The third and final contrast brought things to a spectacular end, violin and clarinet locked into a frenzied battle to the end. Frost’s breathing is remarkable in fast sequences like those in the last movement, so too his fluid finger work.

The Brahms Trio saw violin Kavakos come to the fore – a dramatic contrast with the Bartok before it – playing with a tone so evenly matched with his counterpart Gautier Capucon (cello) that the difference between the two instruments was imperceptible. Capucon is a remarkable force on stage: a brilliant cellist whose technique is flawless, and range utterly enthralling.

Kavakos is humble and self-effacing, but Capucon still takes care not to let personality get in the way of the instrument’s voice. As a result, the immediacy of their music-making transports the audience quickly to a higher plane. A sublime first movement was followed y a delicate playful second movement with some heart-warming connections between cello and pianist Yuja Wang.

And while the fourth movement was suitably conclusive, the notable moment was during the remarkably still third in which all the instrumentalists on stage pulled the audience in further with the quietest sound created by the smallest gestures.

Pianist Yuja Wang had her moment with Schubert’s Piano Quintet Op. 44, in what had surely, by then, been a demanding programme. Kavakos, Wang and Capucon were joined on stage, by violinist Roman Simovic and viola player Blythe Teh Engstroem.

Between them produced moments of great warmth, spirit, and precision. They worked closely together, exchanging glances and infectious smiles. The third movement was so good, the audience continued to clap at the end of the concert until the group sat down and played it again.

All images are the copyright of Aline Paley