Getting exposure from a Royal Wedding

News that Decca Records will release a live recording of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding ceremony next month within hours of the service ending piqued my interest. 

Cellist Sheku Kanneh Mason (signed to Decca), Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, The Choir of St George’s Chapel and Christian gospel group The Kingdom Choir will feature, so too a specially formed orchestra conducted by Christopher Warren-Green featuring musicians from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the English Chamber Orchestra and the Philharmonia, plus trumpeters from the Band of the Household Cavalry.

The official recording will be available to listen on digital that same day.

I’ll admit that I’ve found the announcements about the forthcoming wedding a little tiresome – a reflection of the febrile times we find ourselves in. Seeing leaks about the Windrush generation debacle makes news about a royal wedding or a royal birth appear like half-hearted distractions. I wonder whether that will shift as we get closer to the event.

News of Decca’s sound recording release prompted me to go through my now depleted record collection looking for the last Royal Wedding I recall there being a record made available from.

It seems incredible that it was 32 years ago since Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew’s wedding (and that they’ve since divorced). I recall there being quite a lot of fuss made by the BBC about making a pressed vinyl recording of the entire service the following day – a sort of early prototype of the present-day iPlayer. I was 14 at the time. And I recall making a beeline to get it. Odd, I know. Says a lot about me.

But there is an important point to be made about such events. Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s wedding was where I first heard Elgar’s Imperial March. Similarly, Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate. Such occasions as royal weddings are, whether you’re an avid watcher of them or not, TV moments which build higher than normal viewing figures.

A greater number of pairs of eyes on an event, means higher exposure for those participating in it. That can only be a good thing. I hope the order of service has a lot of a classical music in it too.

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Listen: Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor

Thoroughly Good Listens are first time-listens. They’re the thoughts that emerge when I hear a work for the first time. Active engagement with works of art. Special treats.

Can an unfamiliar work act as a mirror to your own emotions and a smooth ride to some other state?

I think it might. Elgar’s Piano Quintet is my gateway.

Some background might be useful.

Just last week I wrote about something I love. I explained I’d turned my back on it.

This wasn’t, as some thought it might be, a brutal act of betrayal on my former employer, but a desperate bid to draw a veil on a thing I love which has commanded a lot of my emotional energies. I wasn’t having a pop at the BBC, I explained repeatedly to a former colleague. I was shining a light on how my connection with the television programme (such as it is) needed to come to an end.

I felt terribly hurt. All weekend. Stupid I know. I assumed I’d made myself clear. But the exchange suggested my copywriting skills had been woefully misleading. Had I been responsible for someone else’s hurt? Fuck.

Elsewhere on the internet, Fiona Harvey retweets a video published by Youth Music. It documents the various different ways music impacts us psychologically. It’s a fascinating watch. It gets me thinking. Is it possible to identify an emotional need – in this case, the need for healing – and find that through a serendipitously discovered and unfamiliar work? Spoiler: yes it is.

Elgar’s Piano Quintet written in 1918 is both a cathartic listen and a spirited call to arms for change. Not only in that it resists the saccharin sentimentality or nauseating jingoism most assume as Elgar’s trademark. The Quintet on a first listen is transformative fuelled by a infectious sense of determination.

The first movement is all Brahms. Ravishing. Lush. It might even be more Brahms than Brahms. Part way through there’s a hint of something Spanish. But, served up throughout is a lean kind of courage followed by a pallet cleansing dish of hope. The thick chords in the piano accompaniment nourish while the accompanying string texture is a much-needed visceral addition. The movement ends with me thinking Elgar has something up his sleeve. I like the idea of having something up your sleeve.

Solitude follows in the second movement. I had assumed that something in the minor key would soothe me because it would reflect how I felt. But it was gratifyingly uplifting.

This was the point in time when I started moving the office furniture around, pushing the unused rolls of wrapping paper in behind the bookshelf and in the process, knocking down the pen pot. 15 years worth of lanyards fell to the floor as well.

I haven’t looked at those lanyards in years. God only knows why I’ve hung onto them. They’re nothing more than moments in time when I felt validated by some other mysterious force. I loved every single experience and opportunity those lanyards won me, but it’s time for them to be stored away.

Come the third movement, I’m awash with this idea of change and memories from my past confirm I have a proven track record in, from time to time, acting on instinct and shifting things around.

I end up of thinking of Emma. A fresher’s week ‘get-together’. She was wearing pyjamas, I wasn’t. Things got a bit intense. I left in the middle of the night. She follows me to the bus stop in her pyjamas. ‘Why did you have to leave? Couldn’t you have waited until the morning?’ I may have asked her to ‘back off’ at the campus bus stop. It was all very strange.

I only recall this odd memory now because of what happened next, twenty-six years ago. After things had died down a bit between us, Emma drops by my room.

She passes comment on the fact that in the intervening period since she and I last spent any time in each other’s company alone, I’d reorganised my room.

“Well, that says everything doesn’t it? You told me you liked to move things around in your room when things got a bit stale.” I rememeber wanting to ask her not to judge me quite so much. After all, the layout was more efficient this way around.

There’s a pile of lanyards on the floor. I’m going to go through them, decide what I want to ditch and then store them away in a box so I don’t have to see them again. That way I’ll have a little more space for other ideas. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s a healthy thing.

The speaker is closer to the desk too. I don’t have to get up to switch it on or change the CD. The podcasting stuff is stored away neatly underneath the clarinets on the bookshelf. And there are three less Eurovision box files to have to look at too.

Elgar’s Piano Quintet is an agent of change. Exactly what I need right now.

Listen to the Elgar Piano Quintet in A Minor on Idagio or Spotify

The meditative act of remembrance

Years ago I wrote about Remembrance Sunday, my memories of it as a schoolboy singing in a choir, and the impact the simple theatre of the event had on me as a kid.

I have no relatives who fought in the war – at least I don’t think so. I remember as a teenager questioning the validity of the act of remembrance because I had no personal connection to war or the military. There was an assumption that for it to be meaningful or valid, remembrance had to be borne out of personal experience.

Those acts were always underpinned by music. As a teenager in the school chapel choir, it was the Pie Jesu from John Rutter’s Requiem, John Ireland’s Greater Love Hath No Man, Stanford’s Nunc Dimittis, or on occasions, Bruckner’s Locus Iste – suitably sombre and reverential music that seemed to fit with the season and the sentiment. My most recent discovery is John Cameron’s arrangement of Elgar’s Nimrod recorded by Voces 8.

I still worry whether some of this music and my memory of it now romanticised and perhaps even normalised sacrifice. Did we have to avoid looking forward or enjoying the process given that the impetus for the event in the first place was a reflection on humanity at its darkest hour.

Those concerns linger, but they are tempered by a thought that reassures. Remembrance is a meditative act, one which not only instils a sense of calm, but also offers an opportunity introduce a new mindset. Most people recognise how a positive mindset can bring about change.

Remembrance – two minutes every year – seems the very least we can do for the good of us and the world around us. Maybe we should be thinking about doing it more often.

Septura Brass Ensemble: Elgar / Walton / Shostakovich

There was much whooping for the Septura Brass last night.

The ensemble – Huw Morgan, Alan Thomas, and Simon Cox (trumpet), Matthew Gee, Matthew Knight, and Daniel West (trombones), and Sasha Koushk-Jalali (tuba) – includes principal players from the London Symphony, Philharmonia, BBC Symphony, Basel and Aurora Orchestras.

They’re also Ensemble in Residence at the Royal Academy of Music. With a considerable audience of appreciative students, no surprises the atmosphere was buoyant and enthusiastic throughout.

Septura have arranged ‘stolen’ string repertoire for their Kleptomania concert, and opened last night’s concert with Elgar’s string serenade.  A pleasant opener that highlighted the limitations of the work.

Where the first movement of the Elgar Serenade had a rocky start, with the balance of instruments sometimes needing attention, the second movement was beautiful. Septura’s warm tone and deft ensemble did Elgar’s writing justice, although the dynamic range seemed understated in places. The third movement lacked the necessary lilt.

Walton’s A minor quartet is where Septura really shone. This was an ambitious arrangement by artistic director Simon Cox, giving the players far more material to get to grips with. Walton’s composition style – in particular his fugues – demand tight ensemble playing. Septura played with sparkle and panache throughout. The cackles in the bass trombone and tuba, echoed by flashlight stabs scored for trumpets in the first movement were a real highlight.

Magic occurred at the end of the first movement too: one high note from the outstanding Huw Morgan on trumpet, supported by two equally challenging sustained notes in the trumpets . Crystal clear and unfussy playing. Just what you’d expect from principal brass players.

That gripping sense of drama continued in the demanding and inventive arrangement of the second movement presto, manifest in fiendish articulation deployed at break-neck speed.

The third movement was less successful, highlighting how Walton’s languid intimacy is better suited to strings than brass. Walton is much more satisfying when he makes all manner of demands on the player, and the last movement of the A minor quartet exploits that. Septura played with verve: a deft attack on a relentless and demanding opponent.

Shostakovich’s eighth quartet (above captured during the recording for Naxos) is undoubtedly Septura’s calling card, the brass sound giving the opening andante gravitas and doom I’ve not heard in the string quartet before now. Menace surges around with a twisted glint in its eye during the allegro molto that follows.

Real spectacle in Septura’s performance was found in the third movement allegretto, where each instrumentalist deployed a complex sequence of mutes, increasing the number of voices we hear beyond the six players we see on stage.

When the opening theme returns in the final movement largo this time on trombone, the DSCH motif has a painfully mournful quality to it. A potent conclusion to a work originally dedicated by the composer to those who have suffered at the hands of fascism.

Septura Brass introduce their programme with customary brass player nonchalance, describing their arrangements as ‘ambitious thefts’.

Such self-deprecation makes the sound they create all the more incredible. When they play, we hear fireworks. But, we have no visible sign of what’s they’re actually doing to produce that sound. Their arrangements are respectful compromises that highlight their own considerable technical dexterity as brass players, and pay homage to compositional greats.

Septura repeat this programme at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge on Thursday 5 October.

Their latest recording is released in November 2017.

BBC Proms 2017 / 2: Sibelius Violin Concerto / Elgar Symphony No. 1

I worried last night, but didn’t know why.

Now I do. Now I’ve heard Sibelius Violin Concerto and Elgar 1 from Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin, things seem like they’re back on track.

Tonight was epic, an effortless and passionate evocation of feelings I didn’t realise I needed to confront.

The Sibelius was rich and rewarding. Elgar helped heal wounds. I feel enriched and invigorated.

Sibelius’ Valse Triste as an encore seemed like a deliciously ambiguous ending. The subsequent Pomp and Circumstance march felt like a clumsy and unnecessary addition.

That said, an easy 5/5 (via radio)