Introducing Classical Music #6: Symmetry by Dani Howard.

 

If you have ever interacted with me on Instagram or indeed even Twitter then you would know that I have a lot of love for the uber-talented composer. She is, in my opinion, one of the most exciting and inventive composers working today and I hope that the fact that so far this year she has had a lot of her work performed, is a sign that her star is definitely rising.

So today I want to recommend one of the few, and hopefully, this will change very rapidly, of her pieces available at the moment. It is called Symmetry and was written for two violins. It is a light and beautiful piece of music that has a delicate punchiness to it. While it is a wonderful example of contemporary classical music, there is something about it that harkens back to the folk investigations of Butterworth and Williams.

Not only that, but there is a delicious melody that bursts through the duelling violins after 3 minutes, and continues to shimmer and flow like butterflies dancing until it all comes to a sudden and thunderous crash.

I think this piece shows us a number of things, firstly, that there are some pretty amazing composers out there who need to get their work played more often by orchestras and ensembles who normally stick with the usual repertoire because that is what the customers will pay to go and see. Secondly, there are so many amazing female composers out there, writing music that is inventive, interesting and definitely worthy of listening to. These too should be performed more and more, not just to fulfil a diversity quota, or to make an orchestra look progressive but because they deserve it on merit. I am a firm believer that the quality of the art should be held up, with no regard for the race, gender, or the orientation of the artist. The personal life and experience of the artist might shape the work to a degree, but in the end, it is the standard of the work that should matter and if that means more women are being played because they are better than their male counterparts then so be it.

But anyway, for anyone who is looking for a new composer who is definitely gaining more notice for her brilliant music, I highly recommend you listen to this piece and then check out some more of her music. She will be featuring here again I am sure because let’s face it. She really is one of the most exciting composers out there at the moment.

 

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The Proms: An Exploration in Sound.

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Yay the Proms are back on this Friday.  For all who are looking to get into classical music, this is one of the biggest festivals of classical music in the world and is definitely a great place to discover the power of classical music, while also coming to learn new pieces. It is held each year from July to September in The Royal Alber Hall (mostly) and features the best conductors, orchestras, and even the best new composers as well as the old favourites.

It kicks off this Friday the 13th of July, and will feature a purely British feel this year with works from four British composers, Oliver Knussen, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and Anna Meredith.

RVW is, of course, a giant of British music who is beloved and almost beatified by the concert-going public, who have come to see his music (especially The Lark Ascending) as the musical soul of England. The opening concert of the Proms will not rely on his more well-known pieces but instead, we will see The BBC Symphony Orchestra, The BBC Symphony Chorus, and the National Youth Choir performing a choral piece called Into the Unknow Region. You can check it out below.

 

This will be followed by the much loved Planets Suite by Gustav Holst, which features the awesome Mars, one of my favourites, and the nation’s favourite Jupitor which is the tune for the song For The Love of King and Country.  In this centenary year, of the end of the First World War, there will be a sense of memory and celebration and this will certainly set the tone for what is to come. I have included a recording of The Planets for you here. Check it out. It is also worth noting that this is the 100th anniversary of this piece being performed at the Proms for the first time.

 

The concert will begin the piece Flourish with Fireworks by Oliver Knussen which to honest I don’t know enough about, to write a whole lot about other than the fact that is a very modern piece with sudden bursts of musical flourishes and quite lulls that seem terribly disjointed and menacing.  You can see what I mean below.

 

The concert will end with a tribute to the fallen of WW1 with a piece by the brilliant composer Anna Meredith with a piece she co-composed with the 14-18 NOW and Edinburgh International Festival. It is called Five Telegrams and draws on telegrams sent by soldiers home during the war. I don’t have a version of this piece for you to hear beforehand, but that’s the thing about this festival, you get to hear brand new music made by composers who are living and working right now. Proving that classical is a living and vibrant form of music.

I encourage you to tune in for this concert which as part of the Classical for Starters group of concerts at this year’s Proms and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 (as all Proms concerts will) and on BBC Two at 7:15pm.

Introducing Classical Music #5: Malinconia for Cello & Piano by Jean Sibelius.

jean_sibelius_28ae2c_190429Okay, so it has been a while since I have posted an introducing classical music post, and I shan’t bore you with the details as to why I haven’t posted because I am here today to talk about music and particularly how music is a mode of expression that has no equal in other art forms. The best way to show you this is by presenting a piece of music by the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

Malinconia was written for cello and piano and was composed following the death of Sibelius’ daughter Kirsti, aged just one and a half. This loss had a profound impact on the composer and as you listen to this piece you will feel his despair, as well as moments of uplifting joy that one can imagine as some kind of hope that she is in some place better. However, these moments of elevation are pounded into submission by the all-powerful and ever-present grief that completely dominates this music.

I think there are fewer pieces of music that give you what it feels like to feel grief and bereavement quite like this but that is what I love about it. Because the composer through this music has allowed us to share his emotions. He is doing for us what words cannot do. He is letting us feel what he feels and while paintings, poems, and stories may give us an idea of despair, that we can look at and go, “yep that is bereavement,” this piece shows us exactly what it feels like, taking it from merely being an academic exercise to one of pure feeling. A terribly sad piece, but powerful for what it does. I urge you to listen to it here-

Introducing Classical Music #4 The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives

Okay, for this recommendation of a piece of classical music that you should listen to I have shifted gears a little. Because I want to look at a short music by the American composer Charles Ives, a man who was such a maverick when it came to writing music that he refused to make a living from it, working as an insurance salesman, just so he could write the music he wanted to write without having to submit to the tastes of others.

This short piece was described by Ives as being something of a cosmic landscape, with the low constant whisper of the strings representing the druids, unseeing, hearing and doing. But ever present. To me the strings are more like the divine, as they are always present, like an undertone that never changes. The interjections of the flutes are symbolic of the human, the anguish, and suffering of the human experience as it yells out why.

The last burst of despair from the flutes is really telling, because it sounds like a scream of despair as the flautist blasts the air with force through the instrument.

This is a great example of how you can use music to express an idea with very little instrumentation. You can listen to it on Spotify below.

 

Concert Review: Finding Answers with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Wednesday 14th March 2018

Lighthouse Arts Centre, Poole.

Theirry Fischer (conducting)

Stephen Hough (piano)

Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto

The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives

Brahms’ 1st Symphony

The concert began with Stephen Hough performing Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto. Called the Emperor although not by the composer himself, this was the only concerto that was not debuted by Beethoven himself when his hearing had become so poor he could no longer perform. The piece was a masterpiece of virtuosity and composition by one of, if not the greatest composers in music history. Like the his third symphony it begins with a force of power, and it sweeps the listener along with that same force throughout.

Stephen Hough was as masterful as the audience had hoped he would be, and it was quite a thrill to see him perform this piece without a score. It was as much a feat of memory as a physical one but both the orchestra and Mr Hough were up to the task and the performance was masterful and beautiful. The audience lapped up the music and were not stingy with the applause afterwards.

The only disappointment for the audience was that Mr Hough did not perform an encore, but this was only because of the delight as seeing one of the foremost pianists in the world performing so eloquently. He is quite simply a national treasure.

After the intermission the orchestra performed two very different pieces of music. The first was the hauntingly albeit brief Unanswered Question by Charles Ives. For many  in the audience this inclusion was puzzling as it was at odds from the “pure music” of Beethoven and Brahms that surrounded it in the program. However I was looking forward to listening to it live and I was not disappointed. This piece is at times as stark and brutal when the flutes erupted over the ever present quivering strings.

In a touch of brilliance that confused the audience, the last notes of Ives’ Unanswered Question had barely died down, when Theirry Fischer launched into the bombastic opening of Brahms’ first symphony.  For Brahms the act of the writing a symphony after Beethoven was no small thing and it took him seven years to complete this one. It was hailed as one of the greatest first symphonies ever written.

The B.S.O. are truly one of the finest orchestras and they showed just how phenomenal they are with this performance. This really was a good night out, and if you get a chance to see the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra then you should do so. You will not regret it.

Shifting gears, my favourite albums of last year.

Okay, so when I started this blog it was with the intention of writing about classical music. Which of course it still will be for the most part. That is because I love classical. But music is one of those things that you cannot pigeonhole it. Also if you look at the about page of this blog you will see the quote about music being my aeroplane, which anyone who knows anything about music would know that’s a quote from Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

So to shift gears a little I am going to write about the albums that I really loved from last year, which was really hard because 2017 was an amazing year for album releases.

1: MUSIC FROM BEFORE THE STORM by DAUGHTER

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Daughter is easily one of my favourite groups. They are pretty morbid some would say. But I don’t buy it. This is their third long-play album and was released in September last year.

It is the soundtrack to a computer game called Life is Strange: Before The Storm and they relied heavily on the protagonist of the game for the inspiration behind the composition of this album, and you can tell that this is different than their previous albums because of it. The first notable difference is the fact that the album is mostly instrumental.

The songs on this CD are not the typical style one has come to associate with Daughter. But the difference in style comes from having to be written for a soundtrack and not a naturally evolved band project, but none of that matters because this album is gorgeous. Since its release, it has been on heavy rotation on my Spotify. My tracks on the album are Flaws and Witches. But the whole album is just out of this world.

2: RELAXER by ALT-J

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This is one of the best albums of the year. Period. The opening track is just out of this world. 3WW is an amazing example of how good contemporary Prog-rock can be.

There is no escaping the folk influences in this album. Their version of The House of The Rising Sun for example and also in Adeline the repeated line about “the auld triangle” is taken from a well known Irish folk song which was made famous in a Brendan Behan play. But there are moments when there are just what you would call out and out pure punk. It is an album that is hard to really categorise due to eclectic nature of the material.

Also, there are some seriously lush cameos in this album from Ellie Rowsell and Marika Hackman which just add to the sheer wonder of this album. Ellie’s vocals in 3WW are particularly gorgeous.

3: TRUTH IS A BEAUTIFUL THING by LONDON GRAMMAR

This album was certainly long-awaited. Their sophomore offering had high expectationsLondon_Grammar_-_Truth_Is_a_Beautiful_Thing which only comes when the first album is so good, and this album was not a letdown but was easily one of the finest albums of the year. Hannah’s vocals are so often praised to the point that it has become difficult to describe it without sounding trite and falling on cliches or hyperbole. But it really is powerful and for me, one of the finest moments listening to a live act comes when I saw this group in Bristol in the fall of last year. The crowd were rowdy and mouthing off at the group and she began singing on her own and literally hushed the crowd in their drunken gobbieness. It was like watch Cohen at the Isle of Wight festival when he subdued a riotous mob.

The album is not much of a deviation from their first record, however, that is not a bad thing and there are many new standards that fans can sing and feel good about it.  One of my favourite parts of the album comes in their song Oh Woman, Oh Man with the striking lyrics “I’ve always had a thing for you, but nothing made you want me better. There is nothing I can do. I’d steal the moon, and nothing made you want me better.” Yeats couldn’t have written about unrequited love better than that. Brilliant.

The rest of the album is great too, and for me, one of the highlights is available only on the deluxe version. What A Day is a wonderful track that begins with a very classical piano motif and builds to a vocal crescendo of Hannah’s glorious vocals. But overall this album was definitely a highlight of an amazing year for albums.

4 : LUST FOR LIFE by LANA DEL REY

Now I know there are many who do not like Lana Del Rey, she really has such a dark Lana_Del_Rey_-_Lust_for_Life.pngsound that some would label morbid, but this album was a like a shade of light in the darker mood of her previous albums. Somewhat like when the melody of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is inverted, the light comes in and it is beautiful.

This album saw Lana doing what she did best, being edgy like a troubled girlfriend who you didn’t know what she would do. But also being so heartbreakingly vulnerable that you couldn’t ever think of not loving her.

The work swells with a Sixties vibe that so many have tried to do but have failed. Yet she manages to mingle it all with hip-hop beats making it sound not like some lame copy of a Sixties girl group. The title track is gorgeous, although I find the video annoying because The Weekend looks more interested in pouting and looking cool that he comes across as not knowing how to treat a woman like Lana, but the song is amazing. Cherry is a good song, despite the profanity that takes away from it, but the rhythm of the track is catchy and the line “I fall to pieces” just adds to the angst of the song. The whole album is a fascinating listen.

5: STRANGER IN THE ALPS by PHEOBE BRIDGERS

This album has to be included because it got a whole lot of play in my rotation. Pheobe is stranger-in-the-alpsa dark, dark, girl indeed and there is a massive melancholy throughout the whole album that speaks to those who have a morbid streak a mile long. But there is beauty in the way she sings that makes this album a lot easier to listen to that one would think given the subject matter.  Even the song Funeral which begins with her lamenting that she will sing at the funeral of someone who is younger than she is before she begins to sing about her own mental health problems. But then remembers that she has no reason to feel bad about anything, given the fact she is going to sing for some guy who has lost his kid.

I loved this album the moment I heard it, and Smoke Signals and Motion Sickness are two great tracks for anyone’s playlist.

So that is my top five albums from last year which was on heavy rotation as well as the wonderful classical albums and older albums mingled in. 2017 was a great year for music, and this year is meant to be just as hot with the long-awaited album by Lo-Moon, a new one by Black Rebel Motorcycle club, Wolf Alice and the debut by post-punk outfit Shame, and some more music from Art School Girlfriend set to hit the shelves this year. Much to look forward to indeed.

Introducing Classical Music #3 Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Okay, so now it is that time of the year where everyone has packed away the decorations, and even though the evenings are still dark, and there is that cold wind whirling around that makes life miserable and not very nice at all. There is hope. Spring is only just around the corner.

There are very few pieces of music that quite make me think of a warm day in spring when the flowers are out in bloom, birdsong fills the air, and the sun’s warmth floods down upon us bathing in such a warm light that our eyes go yellow when we look upwards with them closed. But this is one of them. I can never listen to it without thinking of spring days full of life and joy. Cricket is being played in parks and fields around the country, and life feels that much brighter and enjoyable.

Okay, it is very cliched. But there are not a lot of composers who quite evoke the gentleness of the English landscape in full bloom quite like Vaughan Williams. For that reason, many either look at him with disdain, while others wave his music around like a George’s Cross flag. A defining mark of their Englishness. Giving little thought to the man, and the more significant meaning behind his music.

Yes, he was a very proud Englishman. Not in the mould that we find in abundance today, who sees the pride of nationality as little more than a loathing of all other nations. For him being a proud Englishman meant that he took pleasure in the folk and music customs of the country. He and George Butterworth spend the pre-war years travelling the land recording the lyrics and music of songs that were fast dying out, in an effort to save them for posterity. Like Yeats in Ireland who recorded the folk stories that in turn gave shape to his vision of the art of Ireland, Vaughan Williams used these folk melodies to give a definitive English voice to his music.

He did this because he wanted English music to be clearly defined away from the German mode which was prevalent due to the Germanic world’s iconic composers who had themselves heavily influenced composers from the rest of Europe, Elgar himself was heavily influenced in the Germanic musical tradition in no small part to his being embraced there before he became the definitive voice of English music.

That Vaughan Williams did this at a time when Sibelius, Dvorak, and others were also looking to their native music and stories for inspiration shows how much he was on the pulse of the growing nationalism that saw Europe tip over into a destructive war, one which RVW himself served in as an ambulance driver and killed George Butterworth and other young voices that could have become greats too had they lived.

He also looked to English music of the Renaissance period, and this piece is based on a melody written by one of the great English Renaissance composers Thomas Tallis, whose Spem in Alium (I will get around to this piece) is just an exquisite piece of muscle flexing by a composer from a country looked down upon by the continent.  The melody was composed in 1567 to be included in a hymn book.

The Fantasia was composed and performed in 1910, but was altered a couple of times between then and 1919 before RVW was happy with it, and we have the version known and loved by many today.

So it should be no surprise that this music conjures up the feeling of being out in the British landscape in spring, feeling the carefree joie de vivre which only spring can evoke in us.

So listen to this music close your eyes and see if this music makes you think of spring too, which given the cold weather made bleaker by another Ashes defeat in Australia, might be a welcome prospect for you dear reader, as it is for me. Enjoy the glorious nostalgia for happy times and just breath in the prospect of a gorgeous spring day which is not too far away from us now.

This version is taken from the 2014 album released by the Halle Orchestra under the baton of Sir Mark Elder.