Music: Nelson John Webb Royal Academy of Music Spitalfields Festival

I had a lunchtime treat last week. I didn’t tell anyone. And I didn’t share the opportunity either.

I went on a lunchtime trip to the Royal Academy of Music for a lunchtime world premiere of – what was it, a cantata or a semi-staged mini-opera? – Nelson.

A ten minute tube journey to observe a singer from the Royal Academy of Music done up in an 18th century costume, playing the part of a lonely Horatio Nelson looking down on Trafalgar Square from his column, feeling rather sorry for himself.

Minutes later, a thunderstorm – depicted by an army of smartly dressed and excited looking local schoolchildren – sees lightning strike Nelson’s Column, freeing our hero from his shackles and giving him a chance to explore the city he loves. A city very different from the memory he had of it when he was alive.

This was a gloriously fantastical story – Nelson tackles the advances in transportation by opting to fly around the capital hanging on to a helicopter – made plausible because of the presence of so many local schoolkids, themselves collaborators in John Webb’s work.

This was their moment – their formative moment – a moment I rather hope will remain with them for years to come, just as I recall the first time I saw the local county youth orchestra play in a school hall during an afternoon when I’d normally be forced to be playing rugby. Money from a variety of sources including the Royal Academy of Music and Spitalfields Festival made this possible. The kids helped created a handful of movements from the work. They got to sing, act and clap their way through a beautifully simple and escapist story. The score – played by musicians from RAM – was actually pretty gripping too.

It was a real pleasure to witness, especially because there were only a handful of us there to watch it. An indulgence.

If there is a lasting memory of this world premiere (not recorded – not documented), it is the timely lyric repeated over and over again by the chorus of children in Duke’s Hall that lunchtime.

London is the place to be.
London is the place for me.

This might be the musical moment which signals my interest in London 2012. Maybe. There is something irresistibly adorable about the sight of so many children having unbridled fun, relishing their important moment. Not least because you them repeatedly enthuse about a city I often find myself getting frustrated by.

A moment I only hope that lasts with them long into adulthood.

Much respect to Julian West at the bunch of musicians from Royal Academy of Music, so too composer John Webb and the various animateurs and helpers who made this special event special. So too Ruxandra Mateiu who took the lovely pictures. There’s a blog from behind the scenes at rehearsals on the Spitalfields Festival site whose 2012 season has tickets available too. 

Whitney Houston (1963 – 2012)

Whitney Houston dead. The now familiar sense of shock (or is it really just surprise?) thunders around in my head and on the internet. Some have documented the timeline which usually follows on Twitter at least when such news breaks.

The narrative is familiar. The narrative is easy. Especially if there’s a sniff of tragedy about the whole thing. Teenager – herself the daughter of a celebrity singer – with a startling voice is discovered, signed up, makes millions, falls off the radar a bit, falls into drug addiction, attempts a comeback, never really quite makes it and then dies.

Perfection. A surprise departure with a tragic story behind it. That’s currency.

We all buy into that storytelling, in part because there might be an element of truth in it, but also because we like hearing and reading stories. We want – possibly even need – a beginning, middle and an end. Throw in some twists and turns and you’ll potentially take us on a rollercoaster ride. So it is with Houston, her life and her death. And when that happens, lots of different people react in different ways, each annoying some other section of society. Or rather, some other pocket of opinion on Twitter.

For those who mourn – or express their sense of sadness at Houston’s demise – I wonder whether the mourning is something which needs outlining a bit more. Are we mourning the passing of Houston herself or the place in our conscience where her songs have been lodged? In hearing about her death are in fact grieving about a moment in our formative years – the moment we first became besotted with one of her songs, for example – which has gone with her? Read More

Music Homework: You Can’t Go Home Again EP Danny Kendall

Take me out of my comfort zone (essentially orchestral classical music, a little bit of opera and 55 years worth of Eurovision songs) and I’ll tred water like an idiot.

The world of indie-rock bands is not where I necessarily feel at ease. If I was to find myself at a gig it would only be by accident. Assuming I stayed in the venue, you’d find me at the back of the pub supping some cheap beer and nervously looking at my iPhone.

So I can’t really explain why I like this latest piece of Thoroughly Good Music Homework. I just do.

So on that basis I think you should just listen to it and like the marvellous tracks from Roland Taylor recommended a couple of weeks ago, you should download it too.

Lovely stuff. It makes me feel all hip, which at nearly 40 years is a relief.

And if you’re wondering, picking a favourite from this EP is difficult but I’d probably plump for You Can’t Go Home Again.

Music Homework: Debussy Children’s Corner Suite

Doll Left On the Shelf

Take a moment. Not long. Maybe twenty minutes or so.

Sit alone. In silence. Pause. Press play.

Recently, I’ve found myself spending more and more time in search of things which enforce a moment of calm on my day.

Where the fourth movement of Hindemith’s Kammermusik No.1 seem utterly suited to the mood I was in at the top of my working day – focussed, eager and driven by self-indulgent narrative – so Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite succeeds in bringing the day to a close with a well-timed and unequivocal full-stop.

It is though the sweet yet dark music Debussy dedicated to his own children (and which countless other young pianists have learnt at some point in their lives) succeeds in slowing things down just a bit. It enforces a different take on things. Debussy entices you into his harmonic take on life and shows you something unusual while ensuring you feel quite at home at the same time.

I learnt the first movement – Doctor Gradus ad Parnussum – when I was a teenager. It was an odd sounding piece with an ending I didn’t know quite how to handle. Listen to all the movements back now, I think it is Serenade for a Doll (the third movement in this suite) which is my favourite.

But really, all the movements are .. perfection. The suite comes heartily recommended. Go listen.

Music Homework: Hindemith Kammermusik No.1

I’ve recently rediscovered the music of German 20th century composer Paul Hindemith (he’s not pictured above – read on for an explanation). His output has been shut away in a special part of brain marked “never to be visited to again” ever since my clarinet tutor at University encouraged me to learn Hindemith’s Clarinet Sonata. Brought up on a diet of Finzi, Mozart and Crusell, it had taken me a long time to become accustomed to Aaron Copland’s concerto for clarinet. Consequently, Hindemith’s sonata felt like a step too far. My relationship with my clarinet tutor broke down soon after that.

But things are different now. Listening back to the sonata with a few more years of listening experience behind me, I hear beautiful lyrical melody where I used to hear a disconnected, overly-clever series of notes masquerading as a melody. Give it a listen. It’s something a little different.

The real discovery for me has happened as a result of becoming reacquainted with the sonata. It’s his Kammermusik No.1. A rich and sonorous concoction of driving rhythms and fresh orchestrations. An excellent case study for anyone wanting to orchestrate small groups of orchestral musicians. The fourth movement is especially entertaining which stands on its own as an enthralling listen but when combined with a bizarre collection of black and white footage like the video below makes for quite an eery and almost fatalistic vision. It’s also where the lady pictured at the top of this blog appears.

This is the first in a series of weekly recommendations of music I’m listening to. Leave a comment to let me know what you think of the music. Would be great to hear what you make of it.