South East London’s Harmony Sinfonia

Harmony Sinfonia in rehearsals
Harmony Sinfonia in rehearsals

South east London’s Harmony Sinfonia played their first concert of 2013 in St Peter’s Church in Brockley on Saturday 9th March taking its near-capacity audience on a modest jaunt around some of the more mainstream tourist destinations of Europe in a programme consisting of Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony, Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Bizet’s kind-of-symphony Roma.

I took part in Harmony Sinfonia’s concert, one of four players in the percussion section (five, if you include the timpanist which I’d always understood was an orchestra ‘section’ all in his / her own right). In comparison to previous relatively present-day excursions into the heady world of orchestral playing when I played the triangle and the clash cymbals with the Bromley Symphony Orchestra, my commitment to the Harmony Sinfonia was slightly higher-key.

Although musically unsatisfying – Gershwin’s American is undoubtedly fun to play and – when I managed to tear my eyes away form the score and the conductor during the performance – enjoyable for the audience too. A number of heads were observed bobbing up and down in addition to appreciative glances exchanged.

But it was Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony which proved the revelation for me. Unfamiliar works are probably best tackled by a spot of active listening and what better way to actively listen, than by sight-reading your way through something you’ve never heard before in order to determine when to place the all-important strikes on the bass drum.

Australian Harmony Sinfonia conductor Lindsay Ryan’s clear beat and textbook direction proved invaluable. No nonsensical stick-waggling here. It should be no surprise that after being introduced to it yesterday afternoon in rehearsals, I’m now listening to the London Philharmonic’s 1987 recording with Haitink at the helm. A highly recommended work to get your teeth into – considerably more satisfying than some of the more mainstream and now – frankly – wallpapery works we all jump to when we think of Vaughan Williams.

I’d long dismissed amateur music-making as being something below me. It’s only now after three separate engagements in the local area that I realise that ill-thought view was the result of the tyrannical influence of ‘perfect’ recordings, broadcasts and professional concerts. There is an assumption that if isn’t perfect then it isn’t valid.

Pish. There is immense pleasure to be derived from participatory music-making and whilst it may in itself not make for headline grabbing writing, its local and hyper-local value is unquantifiable.

We might do well to ensure that funds depleted as they will almost be now still get funnelled into amateur music-making. It is these organisations which help form partnerships between professional and further education bodies extending ad-hoc music making beyond outreach or educational strategies, bringing them to the heart of a local community.

Sometimes it's a bit lonely being a percussionist.
Sometimes it’s a bit lonely being a percussionist.

Particular credit should go to principal percussionist Catherine Herriott (her efficient marking up of parts was as professional as it was vital), principal trumpet (not entirely clear what his name was – it certainly wasn’t Anna Bainbridge as credited in the programme), leader Paul Weymont and principal flautist Sharon Moloney who also doubled-up as a highly efficient and effective stage manager.

And if anyone’s wondering, rumour has it the bloke who played the car horns is set for a stratospheric rise on the amateur orchestral scene in South East London. Possibly.

Harmony Sinfonia‘s next ambitious concert of Stravinsky’s Firebird, De Falla’s Three Cornered Hat and Tchaikovsky Waltz and Polonaise from Eugene Onegin is on Saturday 29 June at 7.30pm. Tickets £9. More information on the band’s website, via @HarmonySinfonia on Twitter and on Facebook.

Prom 43: Flos Campi

Sunday evening’s concert seems a world away now. To be writing about it the City of London Sinfonia’s gig the Wednesday after it occurred feels positively evil.

I’ve got out of sync, you see. The Proms season consumes everything. But let something like a video shoot or a couple of parties get in the way and see the tight schedule slip spectacularly. The order I’ve listened to recent Prom concerts has been out of whack and so too the contents of those concerts too.

I tried listening to the Nigel Osborne flute concerto first and found found myself feeling angry at first. This feeling was quickly supplanted by a feeling of embarrassment after I communicated my two-word opinion to a good friend of mine who, it turns out, actually quite likes Nigel Osborne on account of the Professor – Student releationship my friend had with his 60 year old composer-tutor. Thank God Osborne wasn’t a member of my friend’s family. It could have been a whole lot worse.

The Mozart symphony at the beginning of the concert.. well, that was just a symphony and it was Mozart and, well, what’s there to say about Mozart symphonies exactly?

The real surprise of the evening was the bizarrely named and supposedly “erotic” Flos Campi by Vaughan Williams. Introduced and scored as a concertino featuring solo viola, orchestra and voices, this was bound to pique my interest given that the chorus contribution consisted of “worldess voices”.

There was something ethereal about this work, with barren sounds combined with moments of unmistakable Vaughan Williams. There was somethign fresh about the unusual textures created by the open string viola combined with voices singing no consonants.

Whilst the text of the multi-movement work may have been erotic and there might have been moments of unexpected beauty about the piece, I remain unconvinced about whether it can be necessarily erotic in itself. Vaughan Williams may well ahve been quite shrewd when he subsequently distanced the work from the description ascribed to it by contemporaries.

As for the Beethoven Mass in C .. sometimes I find Beethoven so incredibly dull and boring.

Prom 35: Vaughan Williams & Elgar

The BBC Philharmonic was playing tonight, all of the players gracing the stage in their white tuxedos. (I’m sorry to say I can’t recall exactly what the ladies were wearing.) They looked the business too – there’s a lot to be said for good posture and excellent bow technique – none more so than the lead Yuri Torchinsky whose energy and enthusiasm was clear to see during the opening number, Elgar’s Alassio.

Given my seemingly never-ending amounts of enthusiasm for the Proms season, you’d think I’d be enthusiastic every time I set foot in the building. Not so tonight. This evening, a familiar and relentless series of negative thoughts consumed me. I was focussing on things beyond my control. I was, frankly, obsessing and I was feeling angry as a result.

Of course, part of the problem might have been the Elgar itself. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the Elgar at all. It opens with a brilliant flourish and whisks the audience off to the Italian Rivera swiftly and deftly. Everyone in the hall loved it and yet, I could only muster the weakest of applause. Clearly, Elgar had failed on this particular occasion to shake my self-imposed fug.

I opted to sit on the floor of the arena from that moment on.

The view from the floor is very odd. Here amongst the bags and programmes, the view is of trousers and ankle socks, the occasional skirt or legs partially covered by lycra shorts. Still, it felt cosy. I occupied my own little cocoon whilst the rest of the prommers stood and craned their necks to get a view of the piano soloist who had arrived on stage.

I picked up my pen and notepad intent on writing out my thoughts in a bid to get rid of them. The first series of repeated chords rung out from piano and orchestra. Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto commanded my attention from the outset. My heart-rate dropped dramatically. I could feel all the tension begin to seep from my body. All that negativity ebbed away.

I can’t put my finger on exactly why, nor give a precise series of explanations as to why this unknown work hit me like a freight train. Despite my unfamiliarity with it, there was something immediately engaging about the unexpected sound world Vaughan Williams had created.

This wasn’t the usual clichéd pastoral world I assume all VW’s music conjurs up. There was something unexpectedly jarring about it. That was refreshing. It was as though the composer himself was prodding me to pay full attention to his creation. Every sound, every texture, every chord and melody was fresh to my ears and yet it all made perfect sense all at the same time.
I sat still, calm and collected, temporarily relieved from all my usual stresses and strains.

That’s possibly why the distant dusting sound on the Royal Albert Hall roof above me took me by surprise. What was the noise? Could anyone else hear it? Was it rain I could hear? Then, when I realised it really was, the heavens opened and the rain got louder. A crack of thunder followed shortly after that.

Tonight’s gig moved me. An unexpected event made for a truly moving experience which in turn introduced me to a new work and one I will no doubt listen to time and time again.

Oh, and the pianist was really good too. He even provided us prommers with an encore.

Listen to Elgar’s Allasio and Vaughan Williams’ Piano Concerto on BBC iPlayer.

Prom 29: Vaughan Williams

Sometimes I listen to music I’ve never heard before and find myself thinking how a composer seems to have this amazing ability to write music in such a way that I feel like I’m watching a film.

Inevitably, keen as I am to think of interesting ways to make films, I start imagining how wonderful it would to make a film where a symphony is the only soundtrack.

Of course, there is an obvious flaw in my thinking. Thirty-five minutes of non-stop music would almost certainly be too much to bare. It wouldn’t much different from listening to me for thirty-five minutes non-stop. Some people have. They never do it twice.

What I realise now – after some time – is that if there is music which makes me think it would work well in a film then that is almost certainly a measure of just how successful a composer has been in producing something truly fantastic. To be able to write sound which conjurs up imagery in the mind of a listener who is hearing the work for the first is an amazing achievement.

So it was with Vaughan Williams 6th Symphony this evening in Prom 29. And what better way to listen to its violence, darkness and bleak epilogue than up in the  gallery, laid out on the floor staring up at the ceiling.