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4 Jun 2019

The Women of Weimar

LONDON SEASON

4 Jun

2019

German women were granted the right to vote and to be elected on 12 November 1918, the day after the Armistice. It was a positive sign of what would become the Weimar Republic’s drive for gender parity. And while that may have largely remained a dream, there is no doubt that women firmly established themselves within German society between the wars and became its most dominant icons. Here are five of them.



Marlene Dietrich © Granger Historical Picture Archive & Alamyn

MARLENE DIETRICH

The release of The Blue Angel on 1 April 1930 heralded one of the great symbols of cinema. Reclining on an old barrel, her right knee pulled up to reveal her suspenders and wearing a top hat, Marlene Dietrich (pictured) truly embodies the smouldering, dangerous cabaret singer Lola-Lola. It is the visual equivalent of her signature song, by cabaret habitué Friedrich Hollaender, ‘Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt’.

Born in Berlin in 1901, Dietrich was originally named Marie Magdalene and would often personify the character of a sinful woman. A wannabe violinist, her ambitions were curtailed by a wrist injury, but she made her way as a chorus girl and worked with Max Reinhardt, appearing on stage in Berlin and Vienna. In 1928, composer Mischa Spoliansky cast her in his musical Es liegt in der Luft and she recorded her first song.

And it was Spoliansky’s Zwei Krawatten that brought her to the attention of director Josef von Sternberg, who defied his colleagues and cast her as Lola-Lola. Although Dietrich was not the greatest singer, having only a limited range, her ability to communicate both tragedy and irony, to say nothing of her sexual allure, made her an irresistible force.

Come with us to the cabret at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday 23 September, when Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct some of the great cabaret songs by composers from Kurt Weill to Friedrich Hollaender.

MARIANNE BRANDT

Having trained as a painter at the Grand-Ducal Saxon Art School in Weimar before World War I, Marianne Brandt returned to the city in 1923, when the school was known as the Bauhaus. Life for its female students was not always easy, however, as they were often prevented from studying what were considered masculine disciplines, including architecture. Brandt nonetheless asserted herself and became the only woman in the metal workshop and, later, its acting head. She was an expert silversmith and created a series of elegant, handmade designs, all informed by geometric forms. These were some of the most popular products from the Bauhaus in the 1920s. Many of her teapots, as well as ashtrays and other silverware, are produced to this day. And, typically for a Bauhaus member, Brandt did not limit her focus to metalwork, also producing visionary photomontages.

Having left the Bauhaus in 1929, she went to work with Walter Gropius in his private architectural practice, though as commissions evaporated, she took up a post at the Ruppel metal goods factory in Gotha and entirely reconceived the company’s range. In 1933, with the Nazis firmly established, there was no longer a position for such a prominent former member of the Bauhaus and Brandt retreated from public view until after World War II.

IRMGARD KEUN

Christopher Isherwood’s famous claim, “I am a camera”, has a surprising precursor. In Irmgard Keun’s The Artificial Silk Girl, published in 1932, seven years before Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, the protagonist Doris remarks that “I want to write like a film”. In her novel, Keun gives voice to the flâneuse, the female wanderer, released from domesticity onto the streets of Berlin.

Born in the capital, Keun likewise distanced herself from her own bourgeois family and worked as a typist, before trying her luck with acting. But it was thanks to Alfred Döblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz, that she took to writing. “If she writes even half as well as she speaks”, he said, “she’ll be the best female novelist Germany’s ever had”. First came Gilgi, One of Us in 1931 and then The Artificial Silk Girl, which Isherwood may well have known, given the book’s notoriety. The protagonists of these, her most famous novels, embody the feminist ideal of the Neue Frau (new woman), and they go on to discover the dark reality of the world in which they live. Keun would learn similar truths, when her novels were banned by the Nazis in 1933.

MANON GROPIUS

Described by writer Elias Canetti as “an angelic gazelle”, Manon Gropius was the only child of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, widow of the great composer Gustav. During her marriage to Mahler, Alma had an affair with the devastatingly handsome Gropius and in August 1915, four years after Mahler’s death and Alma’s equally tempestuous relationship with artist Oskar Kokoschka, she and Gropius were married.

Manon, named after her paternal grandmother, was born on 5 October 1916. As a child, she was fiercely protected by her mother and kept from her father’s reach, particularly after her parents’ somewhat inevitable divorce. The ultimate pawn of the 1920s, Manon was passed between the old Austrian imperial capital of Vienna, with her mother poring over the memory of Mahler, and the thrusting metropolis of Berlin, where Alma’s second husband imagined the ‘crystal symbols’ of his architectural utopia.

Their daughter desperately wanted to be an actress, but polio struck just as Manon was coming of age. Alma quickly arranged a marriage to the young fascist Anton Rintelen, but it was too late. Following Manon’s death, Alma engineered the young girl’s memory, deflecting any accusations she had been a spoiled child and inveigling Alban Berg, whose extramarital affairs Alma knew all too well, into dedicating his Violin Concerto ‘to the memory of an angel’.

Listen to Berg's Violin Concerto on Thursday 26 September at Royal Festival Hall.

SYLVIA VON HARDEN



Otto Dix’s portrait of Sylvia von Harden © Alamy

Like Marlene Dietrich, Sylvia von Harden was to become one of the icons of the Weimar Republic. An extensively published journalist and poet, she is now known chiefly through Otto Dix’s 1926 portrait (pictured). The pair met at the Romanisches Café in Berlin, which was a gathering point for intellectuals, including Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler and Irmgard Keun.

One evening, Dix approached Harden and declaimed, “I must paint you! I simply must!”. She responded jadedly, “so, you want to paint my lacklustre eyes, my ornate ears, my long nose, my thin lips; you want to paint my long hands, my short legs, my big feet – things which can only scare people off and delight no one?” Dix was not remotely taken aback. “You have brilliantly characterised yourself and all that will lead to a portrait representative of an epoch concerned not with the outward beauty of a woman but rather with her psychological condition.”

True to his word, Dix created what is one of the Weimar Republic’s most famous, if most unflattering, portraits. Representative of the forthright Neue Frau, with her distancing cigarette, unashamed drinking, androgynous monocle and bob cut, she resists all objectification. Dix may well have intended a caricature, but Sylvia von Harden is resolutely in charge.


20 May 2019

Q&A with Nicola Benedetti

ORCHESTRA

20 May

2019


What were the key moments in your childhood that led to you wanting to be a professional violinist?

I started learning the violin aged four because I copied my big sister. She is four years older than me and I wanted to do everything that she did. The initial phase was hard but I remember being so moved by music from a very young age and was hooked. I can’t remember ever seriously considering doing anything else.
 

How old were you when you first played Bruch’s First Violin Concerto and how has your interpretation changed since then?

I first learnt the second movement when I was eight, and the third when I was nine. I’m sure I sounded quite ridiculous playing it at that age, I wasn’t good enough at all! But I totally loved it, and tried my best. I then didn’t play it again till I was 17 or thereabouts. Of course, it changes every time I play it.
 


On the day of a concert, how do you prepare? Do you have any rituals you follow?

Yes and no. I used to be very controlling over the amount of practice I did, when I washed my hands, etc. Now, I’m more relaxed. My routine is to try to be in an open state and recognise what my body and mind needs in order to be prepared for walking on stage. It’s a complicated thing, really. It’s way beyond the purely physical.
 

Have you performed with conductor Pablo Heras-Casado before?

No, and I’m really looking forward to it!
 

You’ve recently launched The Benedetti Foundation. Congratulations on its success so far. What would be your top tip for beginner violinists?

Thank you. We are in the very early stages but I am very excited about the Foundation, and to be formalising my vision and expanding my commitment to the education of young people and to supporting music teachers. My top tip for beginner violinists is to be patient and to persevere. The violin is hard and can be very frustrating, particularly in the early days, but don’t get disheartened. Do little and often on a daily basis and you will see big improvements. Also, do look at my online video series ‘With Nicky’ on YouTube for some helpful tips!
 

Which of our forthcoming concerts would you recommend?

Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at Garsington Opera.
 


Nicola Benedetti performs Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 at Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 2 June 2019.


15 May 2019

The Shock of the New

ORCHESTRA

15 May

2019

Series Advisor Gavin Plumley introduces the context for the Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis series.

Light fuels memory. And I clearly remember the first time I saw the Bauhaus. It was a sunny spring day. I’d travelled to the small industrial city of Dessau from nearby Leipzig. My head should have been filled with the sights and sounds of Bach’s adopted hometown, but they were suddenly blown away by the sharp shock of the new. It was the vision of Walter Gropius’s modernist masterpiece. The glare of its glass, steel and geometry blazed in an otherwise drab suburb; “a bright object through the gloom”, Theresia Enzensberger calls it in her new novel Blueprint. It was a cathedral to modernism. And just as when I first saw that totem of the Renaissance, the Duomo in Florence, tears pricked at the corners of my eyes.



The Bauhaus in Dessau © Ian Dagnall

Back in December 1926, when the Bauhaus opened in Dessau – the second of the art school’s homes – the impact must have been even more marked. Very few of the surrounding buildings were in place; Gropius’s temple stood proud. As the international press approached, they would have heard the music of Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. Photographers swarmed, ready for the great reveal. And the following day, a further 1,500 people arrived for the official inauguration, wandering slack-jawed through the school’s hallways and workshops, where many of the most pioneering artistic minds of a generation would come to study and create.

The history of the Bauhaus is entirely coincident with that of the Weimar Republic: both were created in the Thuringian capital of Weimar in 1919; and both came to an end in Berlin in 1933 with the advent of the Nazis. But, most importantly, the Republic and the Bauhaus were thoroughly utopian projects, tendering solutions, democratic and cultural, to the warring era they trailed.

The sense of disillusionment after the most brutal, mechanised conflict the world had ever witnessed was pervasive. Having been a willing volunteer, German poet Hugo Ball expressed his dismay in 1917 at what had unfolded. Writing ostensibly about artist and later Bauhaus teacher Wassily Kandinsky, he declaimed, “God is dead” (alluding to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche). “A world disintegrated. I am dynamite. World history splits into two parts. There is an epoch before me and an epoch after me.” And yet the era that followed was just as conflicted. In the final stages of World War I, the German population lurched into a violent revolution. The uprising may have seen in the founding of a republic and the abdication of the Kaiser, but it also resulted in a volunteer militia, supported from afar by the Social Democrats, assassinating various leading communists.



Otto Dix ‘The Match Seller’

With elections, including the first votes for and by women, and the establishment of a national assembly, some sense of reason was restored. Meeting first in the sleepy cultural centre of Weimar, parliament set out terms for a new German constitution. It was adopted in August 1919, announcing that “the German people, united in its tribes and inspired with the will to renew and strengthen its realm in liberty and justice, to serve internal and external peace, and to promote social progress, has adopted this Constitution”.

On the streets, however, there was little unity among the ‘tribes’. Turning their gaze from the trenches to the cities, artists (and former soldiers) George Grosz and Otto Dix recorded the ravages of war on society, painting limbless matchbox salesmen and generals with metal jaws. Added to the war’s physical and emotional disseverment, apparent in Alban Berg’s first opera Wozzeck (1925), there were also the lasting economic effects, with the Treaty of Versailles blaming Germany for all the loss and damage caused between 1914 and 1918. The Allies duly levied reparations that the new Republic had no chance of paying back, which similarly made attempts to reconcile the constitution’s idealism and the pessimism of daily life impossible.

The very same artists who recorded the period’s socio-political schisms also decided to step away from the hyperemotional expressionism that had characterised its art to date. Instead, Dix and Grosz, alongside conscientious objector Christian Schad, pursued a cooler, more detached style. In 1925, curator and art historian Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub branded it Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity), describing an art that expressed a “desire to treat things dispassionately, as they are, without trying to find some ideal meaning”. Similarly objective, though truly idealistic in its aims, was the Bauhaus. The school had likewise moved away from the expressionism and cultish fervour that marked its initial years in the city of Weimar towards a more rational style. Re-established in Dessau after local government machinations forced it to move and, later, again, in Berlin, the institution’s masters applied their arts-and-crafts principles to the modern age, fashioning geometric designs for everyday use, while creating photographically-inspired art.

The kind of theoretic perplexity at the core of these movements was characteristic of the age. Thomas Mann deftly communicated its dichotomies in the allegorical push-and-pull of Der Zauberberg (‘The Magic Mountain’), his literary sensation of 1925. Focussing on a naive bourgeois named Hans Castorp, who travels to an elegant sanatorium in the Alps, Mann’s novel confronts an array of possible solutions to the woes of the world. While set in the seemingly comfortable pre-war era, its concerns are manifestly those of the Weimar Republic, as people grappling for intellectual identity again faced questions of progress versus tradition, of society’s needs against the collusions of a political hierarchy.

In the midst of this maelstrom, there was an unsurprising explosion of hedonism. Fuelled by drink, sex and drugs – cocaine use was particularly prevalent among Berlin bourgeois circles – Weimar Germany became a veritable playground. Its increasingly diverse society, catalysed by unemployment and consequent mass movement, prompted an unlikely and often dangerous ethnic, political and sexual mix, becoming as much a subject for local writers such as Irmgard Keun and Alfred Döbling as it was for visitors like Christopher Isherwood.



The Bauhaus in Dessau © Nikolaj Schubert

In Weimar Germany, modernism was many-splendoured and indefinable, bridging everything from avant-gardism to the out-and-out popular. And evidence of its breadth is surely found on the lyric stage. This was, after all, the era of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s plush weepy, Die tote Stadt (‘The City’) which enjoyed simultaneous premieres in Cologne and Hamburg in 1920. The opera’s mood of eroticised, fetishized remembrance, harnessed to a clutch of bittersweet arias, proved evergreen (until the Nazis banned it). But even more popular were the era’s operettas, as Berlin stole the genre’s crown from Vienna and modish plots and ‘American’ popular songs came into play. Such trends were equally prevalent in Zeitopern (operas of the time), which eschewed escapist fantasy in favour of the contemporary. Featuring telephones, trains and factory workers, Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf (‘Funny plays’, 1927) and Max Brand’s Maschinist Hopkins (1929) maintained surface modernity while relying on established musical forms.

Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith likewise reverted to traditional structures, albeit to subvert them. The latter, in particular, relished the rigour and rhetoric of the Baroque, using it for his musical complement to Neue Sachlichkeit. And while Weill, born in Dessau, the city of the Bauhaus, had, like Hindemith, begun writing expressionistic works, he was soon flaunting a more barbed idiom, inspired by his collaboration with playwright-cum-agitator Bertolt Brecht on works such as Die Dreigroschenoper (‘The Threepenny Opera’, 1928) and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (‘The Rise and the Fall of the City of Mahagonny’, 1930). Brecht was to pursue even more pointed forms of social criticism, while Weill readily embraced jazz and Americanisms, helping pave his way to Broadway. Conflict and contradiction abounded, even in the closest of collaborations.

And it was not just the shellac records and sheet music of Weill’s popular songs that bridged the gap between high art and the high street. That was done most ably by interwar German cinema. Film was one of few artistic disciplines to thrive due to the country’s otherwise lamentable economy: imports, including US films, were prohibitive; while German producers were able to capitalise on the effects of inflation, borrowing funds that were soon rendered null. Lavish effects, swathes of extras and technological trickery typified Weimar cinema, as it moved from vertiginous expressionism to social critique, as in the art that emulated its fluidity, such as Berg’s Lulu.

By the time Schoenberg’s former pupil died in 1935, leaving his second opera incomplete, the era’s commitment to progress – socially, artistically and politically – had become prey to a new regime. The Weimar Constitution may have sought to paper over the cracks, but the violence and crime on the streets, the enduring humiliations of a war-torn generation and the failed hopes of those who came in its wake all sat at odds with the Republic’s idealism. Exploiting the ignominy doled out to Germany and the pain of reparations, while invoking apparent past glories and future promises, the Nazi Party, founded in Munich in 1920, had brought about the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933.

Looking back, the demise may seem inevitable. But the horror of the 12-year Third Reich cannot blind us to the successes of the 14-year period that preceded it. Weimar’s greatest achievement remains its progressive thinkers – writers, artists, musicians, architects and filmmakers – many of whom found homes further afield, there rebuilding Weimar’s utopian vision. They included Walter Gropius in Harvard, Kurt Weill on Broadway and the Philharmonia Orchestra’s own Otto Klemperer in Los Angeles and in London, to say nothing of the flood of German-speaking artists in Hollywood. And although the Republic’s politics were deeply flawed, stemming from what Eric D. Weitz calls its “star-crossed birth”, the Weimar Constitution remains proof of enduring faith in democracy.

Because, for all the hopelessness of the period, it was also a time of great hope. Like the Bauhaus, the Weimar Republic offered “a bright object through the gloom”, what Gropius called “the crystal symbol of a new faith”. 100 years on, we need its light and optimism – now, more than ever.

Written by Gavin Plumley


Explore the programme for our Weimar Berlin: Bittersweet Metropolis series


29 Apr 2019

Petrushka – a Listening Guide

ORCHESTRA

29 Apr

2019

Stravinsky's Petrushka tells the fantastical tale of three puppets brought to life at a Shrovetide fair. Inspired by Russian legend, Stravinsky fused traditional folk songs with his own vivid musical storytelling.

 


PART 1: THE SHROVETIDE FAIR

The bustling Shrovetide Fair is evoked using a swift succession of contrasting, sometimes overlapping, ideas creating the sensation of moving between areas of the fair. Stravinsky presents us with these strongly rhythmic musical ideas, which he treats as a collage of juxtapositions rather than developing them in depth.

The piece opens with the cries of street hawkers: an undulating texture in the winds supporting a perky flute motif, answered by violins. As the orchestral texture expands, another motif of insistent repeated notes ending with a flourish leads us towards the full orchestra playing Stravinsky’s version of a folk tune, with tingling percussion and the piccolo playing its highest note. The brass announces the Master of Ceremonies; a lugubrious clarinet melody evokes an Organ Grinder. The flutes represent Dancing Girls, one of whom has a music box (the celesta, which uses a keyboard to play tinkling bells); they dance to the chirpy French tune ‘Une jambe de bois’ about a woman with a wooden leg.

A dramatic drumroll interrupts, summoning the crowd to the Magician (bassoon and contrabassoon), who plays a charming melody on his flute. The puppet theatre’s curtain ascends to reveal the Moor, the Ballerina and Petrushka, who awaken to the Magician’s flute. They perform a lively Russian Dance, also based on folk music.

 


PART 2: PETRUSHKA’S CELL

A drumroll leads us from the first tableau to the second, which begins which a violent gesture as Petrushka is kicked onstage. We see the puppet in his room, represented by the ‘Petrushka chord’ outlined by the clarinets (a combination of chords from two different keys, C major and F-sharp major). Petrushka pulls himself together to the sound of the piano, curses the Magician’s portrait (a blast from the trumpet), then, to more lyrical music in  the woodwinds, mimes his love for the Ballerina and his hatred of the Magician. The Ballerina enters but is scared off by Petrushka’s overambitious dancing display; the clarinet laughs at Petrushka as he wilts. More piano music, answered by cor anglais, builds towards an orchestral ‘curse’ at the Magician, and the mocking clarinets signal Petrushka’s collapse, the scene closing with another trumpet blast.

 


PART 3: THE MOOR’S ROOM

More drumrolls link the tableaux. In the Moor’s exotic room, he dances to a tune on clarinet and bass clarinet, then bassoons. The infatuated Ballerina dances for him to a trumpet melody; they dance a waltz (bassoon, trumpet and flute); their themes overlap. Petrushka escapes from his cell and interrupts before realising he is too weak to win; he is beaten and chased away.

 


PART 4: THE SHROVETIDE FAIR (EVENING)

Another drumroll; evening at the fair. We hear a succession of colourful dances: the Wet Nurses’ Dance (an old folk song first heard on the oboe); a pipe-playing peasant and his bear (shrill clarinets, trudging accompaniment); a merchant with two gypsies (a shimmering orchestral texture, proud string theme and vibrant dance); coachmen (heavy, repeated rhythms, joined by the nurses and their tune); masqueraders (quick flourishes, bold brass chords). A cry comes from the puppet theatre (a held trumpet note) and the Moor chases Petrushka onstage, followed by the Ballerina. The Moor stabs Petrushka, who dies (plaintive woodwind solos). A marching bassoon announces the Magician’s arrival; he picks up Petrushka’s corpse (horns) and shakes it (shivering strings). Muted trumpets evoke the ghost of Petrushka appearing and mocking the Magician – who runs away in fright.

Written by Joanna Wyld


18 Apr 2019

Q&A with Esther Yoo

ORCHESTRA

18 Apr

2019


What do you enjoy the most about performing with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra?

I love the strong musical and personal connection we have built over the past years of performing together and also recording my first two albums together. I also really enjoy the fact that we’re always exploring new ideas and approaches even when we’re revisiting pieces we have already performed together. Playing with musicians who feel like family takes music making to an extra special level.

Glazunov’s Violin Concerto is not the most well know violin concerto. What drew you to perform and record this work?

This concerto was actually recommended to me by the late Maestro Lorin Maazel who was a very important mentor to me and whom I made my London concerto debut with many years back, together with the Philharmonia Orchestra. I quickly fell in love with this unique concerto, which is short in length but bursting to the brim with life, brilliance and lyricism. It’s a piece that continues to evolve with me and I appreciate the precious memories it brings back of working with Maestro Maazel.


I can see that you’re an official Champion of the music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins. Tell us a bit about why you became involved with this charity?

Mental health has always been a priority for me and I was inspired by the important work that Nordoff Robbins does of helping and healing people with music. Music and the process of creating art has helped me through many difficult times in my life and I strongly advocate all that NR are doing with music therapy, raising awareness and making music accessible to those who need it most.

Which of our forthcoming concerts would you recommend?

On 15 March 2020, Esa-Pekka Salonen is recreating the concert that Beethoven gave in Vienna in December 1808, involving four hours of music – this sounds amazing! Then of course I have to recommend my own concert on 14 May 2020, when I’ll be playing the Barber Violin Concerto as part of an all-American programme, with Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

But there are many more that look exciting too – I’d love to hear Sol Gabetta playing Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with Elim Chan conducting on 24 October, Vladimir Ashkenazy returning with Dvořák’s New World Symphony on 28 November, and Lahav Shani conducting Romeo and Juliet on 13 February.

Then, from the Philharmonia’s free Music of Today series, the 19 March concert of music by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Helena Tulve caught my eye.


16 Apr 2019

Viktoria Mullova: a look at a fascinating life…

ORCHESTRA

16 Apr

2019


The story of Viktoria Mullova, her early life and defection from Soviet Russia, is the stuff of spy movies. Mullova was an exceptionally talented young violinist in Moscow, where she studied with the formidable Leonid Kogan. In 1980 she won the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition in Helsinki, Finland – a sure sign that she had a major career ahead of her. Two years later, she won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

The authorities kept a close eye on Mullova, but allowed her occasional visits to Soviet Estonia and even through the Iron Curtain to Finland. In 1983, Mullova conspired with her then boyfriend and a Finnish journalist to slip the KGB officers who were accompanying her during a concert tour in Finland. She was driven from the town of Kuusamo over the border to Sweden, where she stayed for two nights in a safe house with her boyfriend and sought political asylum in the USA. She had left her Soviet-owned Stradivarius violin in her bedroom at the Kuusamo hotel.

Mullova, who now lives in Holland Park, London, has since pursued a distinguished international career, playing concertos with orchestras throughout Europe and America and also drilling deep into Baroque and Classical music. Echoing her lunge for freedom in 1983, she has always tried to break out of the standard repertoire associated with virtuoso soloists. She is fascinated by music of the Hungarian gypsy tradition and by South American street music. She has been a frequent visitor to Brazil, including one trip deep into the rainforest where she stayed with indigenous tribes. For her third non-classical album, Stradivarius in Rio, she joined local musicians in the Brazilian capital for performances of popular songs and dances.


But Mullova still feels close to those countries in which, as a child, she fleetingly glimpsed life outside Russia. Her first  trip, under supervision, was to the Estonia of Arvo Pärt and its capital Tallinn.

“I actually wonder if I have any Baltic blood in me”, she told me in Tallinn in the summer of 2017, where she was recording music by Arvo Pärt in the presence of the composer. It was her first return to Estonia since before her defection.

The music of the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea means a great deal to Mullova. She describes the Finland of Jean Sibelius as “a country I feel very connected to” and is soon to add Distant Light – the Violin Concerto by the Latvian Pēteris Vasks – to her repertoire. “The people might seem cold and cool but underneath they are very, very emotional,” she says; “they cry easily.”

Written by Andrew Mellor.


Viktoria Mullova performs Sibelius's Violin Concerto in Canterbury and London on 9–11 May, followed by a selection of pieces, chosen by her, from Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in Leicester on 12 May.


5 Apr 2019

Herbert Blomstedt talks Beethoven and Mozart

ORCHESTRA

5 Apr

2019


In a career spanning more than 60 years, Herbert Blomstedt’s irrepressible enthusiasm remains undimmed. What are the unique qualities of this most modest of conductors…?

Herbert Blomstedt was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Swedish parents who moved the family back to Gothenburg when Blomstedt was two, setting the tone for the cosmopolitan nature of his career. Blomstedt studied with Igor Markevitch in Salzburg – a city saturated in the music of its most famous resident, Mozart – and with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood (USA).

Blomstedt turned 90 in 2017, and in over six decades of music-making he has worked with the major orchestras of the world. Performances with the Philharmonia have received consistent acclaim; their Beethoven Symphony No. 7 of 2017 was described as “a full-on exuberant expression of the human spirit. Energetic and relentless from beginning to end” with “particularly careful attention to the Beethovenian extremes in dynamics… his subtle phrasing gave shape and cohesion to the whole work. The Philharmonia simply sparkled…” (Bachtrack).

Beethoven is one of the composers for whose music Blomstedt feels a particular affinity, although he has been quick to emphasise that each performance brings fresh insights. Never one to rest on his considerable laurels, he always approaches the score seeking something new. On Beethoven’s symphonies, Blomstedt has said: “I think the most striking character of Beethoven’s symphonies is the will-power – the resolute plan for every work… It’s music that has a message, but you have to work to find that message. If you just play the notes, that does not mean that you’ve got the meaning of the music.”

As for Mozart’s symphonies, Blomstedt states that they “are all interesting in their own way”, a variety enhanced by the spontaneity of live performance. Blomstedt has described the distinction between the solidity of a recording and the thrill, even the risk, of live performance: “… anything can happen during a concert. That is really what makes concerts so exciting. They are not gramophone recordings that repeat themselves every time you plug in the switch… Music is not like a painting or a lithograph; it’s something that is constantly being recreated, and therefore is so immensely alive…”

Blomstedt himself continues to revel in this process with an integrity that has become one of the hallmarks of his musicianship. His abiding principle is “to be sincere”, and, to the delight of audiences everywhere, his love of conducting remains as unquenchable as ever: “I never get tired of music.”


4 Apr 2019

Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony: The First Performance

LONDON SEASON

4 Apr

2019


Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony was premiered at Kuybïshev on 5 March 1942, and its power was immediately recognised.

A microfilm of the score was flown out to the West, where conductors such as Toscanini and Stokowski competed to give its Western premiere. Sir Henry Wood gave the work’s first European performance in June 1942 at a Proms concert in the Royal Albert Hall. The American premiere followed a month later, conducted by Toscanini. Both performances were broadcast to millions of allied households, and the work instantly became iconic.

Most extraordinary of all was the first performance in Leningrad itself on 9 August 1942 –  the very day Hitler had decreed that the city should fall. The Leningrad Radio Orchestra was scraped together from the city’s remaining musicians, many of them emaciated; they were given extra rations to build their strength. One of the organisers recalled how thin the musicians were, but marvelled: “How those people livened up when we started to ferret them out of their dark apartments. We were moved to tears when they brought out their concert clothes, their violins and cellos and flutes, and rehearsals began under the icy canopy of the studio.”

The percussionist Dzaudhat Aydarov had been reported dead, but in desperation the orchestra’s conductor, Karl Eliasberg, went to the morgue to make sure. There he found Aydarov lying amongst the deceased, still breathing – just. Aydarov then performed one of the most demanding roles in the symphony, playing the side drum that beats the rhythm of war in the first movement.

In an act of defiance, the performance  was broadcast across Leningrad via loudspeakers – audible to the German troops. Sympathetic figures were inspired by Shostakovich’s music to take action and show their support: British composer Alan Bush organised lectures in London, and in September 1942 Shostakovich was sent 36th birthday greetings by Paul Robeson, Charlie Chaplin, Toscanini and Stokowski from a San Francisco festival devoted to the composer’s music.

Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony soon became ubiquitous, performed in the United States 60 times in a single year. With popularity came the inevitable backlash; some critics were disdainful of the work’s bombastic nature, and it was even banned in Russia in 1948. Yet the musician Josef Raiskin, who heard the work’s premiere when he was a young boy, recalls that he and his classmates would tap out the rhythm of the ‘invasion theme’ on their desks; an act of rebellion against their teacher and the oppressive climate in which they found themselves. Shostakovich had written music to defy oppression, and no regime could silence it.

Feature by Joanna Wyld


19 Mar 2019

Q&A with Xian Zhang

LONDON SEASON

19 Mar

2019


There’s a lovely story about your first steps in classical music in the children’s book Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Tell us about your first piano?

I started learning the piano when I was three. My father was an instrument maker – he made violins and cellos. I was born in the ’70s at the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when all of the Western instruments were burned. There were no pianos at that time and the instrument factories were closed. So my father built me a piano from spare parts.

What do you most enjoy about being a conductor?

A conductor becomes the embodiment of each piece. He or she must be fully aware of every marking on the score, must know each individual part as well as the musicians themselves, and the whole work as well as the composer. That means long hours of detailed preparation for rehearsals and concerts. A thousand details go by in each measure. The musicians themselves are each tugging at that interpretation, listening to their fellows and not only participating in my vision but also fulfilling their own. The result is a living sound, a creation that yields surprises with each new performance. Every concert is different, and that’s part of the amazing thing about doing live performances. There is this part that you cannot predict. Exciting!

We’re curious – how do you get the most out of performing concertos when you have limited rehearsal time with a soloist?

Both the soloist and I know our parts inside out before we start working together – and yet we may well have very different ideas as to how the piece should go. Once we start rehearsing together, chemistry somehow takes over and hopefully we will be able to offer the audience something very special. Every time I accompany the Brahms Violin Concerto, it is different!

Which upcoming concerts in our 2018/19 season would you recommend to people who enjoy this one?

What a tough question! Herbert Blomstedt is a wonderful conductor and he has programmed one of my favourite works – Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. If you enjoy Shostakovich 5 tonight, why not come back for Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting Shostakovich 10 and/or Stanislav Kochanovsky for Shostakovich 7? And of course I should recommend the concert on Friday 5 April with Wu Wei performing the Sheng, which is one of the oldest Chinese instruments. Actually, it is probably easier to ask which concerts I wouldn’t go to – the Philharmonia is working with so many wonderful artists!


30 Jan 2019

12 Years To Act: Accelerating our Environmental Response

ORCHESTRA

30 Jan

2019


The Philharmonia Orchestra has been accepted onto Arts Council England's environmental sustainability-focused programme, 'Accelerator', in partnership with Julie's Bicycle. In this blog post about the project Jennifer Pattison writes about what the project means for the Orchestra. 

Being a part of the Accelerator programme is undoubtedly a coup. It is a great fit for the Philharmonia as we develop plans to curate a programme dedicated to the environment, which is timely given the UN’s latest advice that we only have 12 years left before climate change catastrophe is inevitable and irreversible. And it’s a comfortable match for an Orchestra led by an environmental champion in Esa-Pekka Salonen who co-founded the Baltic Sea Festival in order to raise awareness of the devastating impact of environmental degradation.

But three months into the programme, Accelerator is already forcing us to ask some difficult questions about the extent to which our mission, which drives our creative output, can complement an environmental focus; and about the operational realities of enabling that work. Our sector as a whole is grappling with complex issues that only serve to divert us away from facing up to our environmental responsibilities:

Prioritisation
When Brexit threatens to undermine the financial and operational viability of our touring model; when costs inflate annually and our Arts Council England investment continues to decline in real terms; when the increasingly litigious environment in which we operate absorbs increasing amounts of time that would otherwise have been spent furthering our mission; and when we are focused on increased financial and organisational resilience and driving efficiencies, how can conversations around reducing our carbon footprint get a look-in?

Financial Targeting
And within the necessarily rigorous application of cost control, efficiency savings and financial targeting, there is a fundamental tension between making environmentally-friendly choices, and choosing the cheapest option. How can we progress purchasing FSC-certified paper, and moving to environmentally-friendly suppliers, when there’s an assumption that the net effect on the bottom line will be increased costs? How can we make the case for reducing our use of resources and switching over to carbon-friendly solutions to achieve a cost-neutral outcome, when the financial calculations necessary to inform decisions won’t be undertaken by colleagues whose priorities lie elsewhere? 

Carbon footprint
And – the elephant in the room – orchestras that tour internationally have a weighty carbon footprint. Transporting 80 musicians, instruments and support staff around the world regularly is not an environmentally-friendly activity, nor is driving a truck loaded with instruments around the UK throughout the year a happy bedfellow of initiatives that encourage us to choose public transport over the road. We are mission-led, and our mission is to create thrilling experiences in music, supported by a vision that we will have a transformative impact upon the widest possible audience. This vision, and the economic reality in which we operate, drives the carbon-heavy touring model, as does our steadfast focus on maintaining the highest-quality orchestra. We are as strong artistically as the calibre of orchestral musicians we retain, and a diary with reduced touring brings with it the risk of losing the players that collectively enable us to maintain our position as one of the world’s great orchestras.

And whilst we wrestle with these intractable issues, we sleepwalk towards environmental disaster. Whilst we champion for the rights of communities experiencing disadvantage to access the arts, devising audience development and engagement projects that move the culturally-disengaged to becoming active arts participants and consumers, we are complicit in not doing everything we can to halt environmental calamity that will hit those same disadvantaged communities hardest and first.

How can the Accelerator programme help?
Accelerator is already encouraging the small numbers of Philharmonia staff that have come into contact with it to find solutions to these issues, driven by the creation of an artistic response to climate change. The programme’s training residential in Gloucester encouraged us to carve out the time to consider how best we can use art to hold a mirror up to nature, highlighting the ability of orchestral music to be a vessel for the human experience, the enormity of nature, and human’s connection with the natural world. We have the opportunity to perform epic, transformative music on some of the most celebrated concert platforms in the UK. We’re going to challenge emerging composers to write music that speaks to these issues, and to devise immersive, mixed reality experiences that deepen our audience’s connection with the music and with environmental degradation. We will create participatory work with the community groups and participants we partner with across England that uses music to add depth to how respond to these issues.

But it is clear that however strong our artistic response is, it won’t be authentic if we’re operating in an environment that fails to prioritise reducing our carbon footprint and making environmentally-responsible choices. Thanks to Accelerator, what could have been an unsuccessful campaign to identify budget, amidst so many competing pressures, to engage experts in their field to educate Philharmonia staff and musicians about the environmental choices we should be making, is now guaranteed expert training. We will use the next phase of the Accelerator support package, delivered by Julie’s Bicycle, to educate and inspire staff and players on environmental issues and catalyse more creative thinking about our artistic contribution. Accelerator will help us navigate a course through the issues we’ve identified, and to ensure that our creative response is authentic, and devised from the most informed position.   

How do we ultimately address the conflict between the complex issues identified at the beginning of this piece and our moral obligation to become more environmentally responsible? Through embedding environmental consideration into the decisions we take, the suppliers we use, the products we buy, the work we produce, and the engagement activities we undertake. We have to move to a position whereby it’s not a choice; it’s a given.

Jennifer has worked for the Philharmonia in various roles since 2007, raising funds and helping take forward strategic initiatives.


25 Jan 2019

Philharmonia Chamber Players: Adrián Varela on Piazzolla, Bach & Stravinsky

LONDON SEASON

25 Jan

2019


Join us on Thursday 21 Feb, 6pm, for a free, intimate performance of colourful chamber music by Bach, Stravinsky, and Piazzolla, as part of our long-running Philharmonia Chamber Players series. Ahead of the concert, violinist Adrián Varela reveals how Bach and Stravinsky influenced the tango of Piazzolla.

 

Piazzolla, Bach and Stravinsky: Finest Musical Fluency

With the arrival of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, the musical interests of young Argentines and Uruguayans veered away from the outmoded ways of ‘Golden Era’ Tango. Piazzolla, a virtuoso bandoneonist in Aníbal Troilo’s famous orchestra, yearned to become a classical composer in the style of his teacher, the great Alberto Ginastera. An admirer of Stravinsky, Piazzolla spent a year in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger. Boulanger showed Piazzolla that his strength lay in reinventing the Tango.



Over the next few decades, Piazzolla developed his ‘Nuevo Tango, a blend of Tango and compositional techniques and aesthetic traits borrowed from his classical-world guiding lights, celebrated by the new generation but reviled by the establishment. By studying Baroque music, particularly Bach and Vivaldi, Piazzolla developed contrapuntal, fugato, and chorale writing; all techniques previously considered too ‘highbrow’ for the medium. Tango was for dancing, the status quo went, whereas for Piazzolla traditional Tango was dead. To him, the natural home of this new one was the concert hall - echoing Haydn’s relocation of the String Quartet from palace chambers to public spaces 200 years before. The central movement of Suite Punta del Este is a masterpiece in adapting an alien musical concept such as the chorale to the Tango medium.


20th Century music, freer and containing more expressive possibilities, also made its way into Nuevo Tango. Piazzolla found ways to use dissonance, freedom of form and the wider harmonic range found in Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev and Ravel as compositional tools. Before, instruments had fulfilled their traditional roles, in the same way they do in, say, a Big Band. Piazzolla developed the sonorities more symphonically, even when working with just a quintet. This approach opened the door for more musicians (in this context there is hardly a distinction between composers and instrumentalists) to follow suit.

Alongside stylistic fluency there was also a broader musical fluency amongst local musicians close to Piazzolla: people such as Oscar Lopez Ruiz (guitar), Pablo Ziegler (piano) and Rene Marino Rivero (bandoneon). In this sphere it was -and still is- perfectly normal to command disparate musics with the virtuosity of a multilinguist. ‘Marino’, who became my mentor in the genre, would begin solo recitals with Grieg, Schumann or Bach, weaving classical music around Tango, original compositions and improvisations. It made for a sophisticated aesthetic environment where styles, techniques and musicians all intertwined in a less compartmentalised music, with deep, broad aesthetic foundations.


The Suite Punta del Este, given its Argentine premiere in Buenos Aires by Piazzolla and its Montevideo premiere by Rene Marino Rivero, is originally a bandoneon concerto and a prime example of Nuevo Tango. In arranging it for string quartet I have followed the spirit of aesthetic and instrumental fluency which enabled Nuevo Tango, now in its seventh decade, to emerge in the first place. My hope is that by performing Piazzolla ‘surrounded’ by his friends Bach and Stravinsky, audiences will experience in the flesh the strong links between them and look forward to enjoying discovering more, both on a smaller and a larger scale.

 

Adrián Varela is a member of the 1st violin section of the Philharmonia Orchestra.   adrianvarela.com


13 Dec 2018

Q & A with Principal Bass Clarinet Laurent Ben Slimane

LONDON SEASON

13 Dec

2018


We begin our 2019 UK concerts with a colourful programme of English concert favourites, framing a new concerto for bass clarinet by acclaimed American composer Geoffrey Gordon. Find out what to expect in our new Q&A with our Principal Bass Clarinet, Laurent Ben Slimane, and hear the thrilling music live in Leicester & London (19 & 20 January).

 

What first drew you to the clarinet, and how did you move on to bass clarinet?

The clarinet came to me! My parents wanted me to do an activity outside school and they thought music would be nice so we went to my local music school in France.

The director, who was also the only teacher, asked me what I wanted to play.  Because I didn’t know, he told me that clarinet would be great for me but in fact, he needed clarinets for his wind band!

When I was studying clarinet in Paris with Bruno Martinez, I used to go to the Opera House because he was Principal Bass Clarinet there. I absolutely fell in love with this instrument because Bruno had the best sound I had ever heard. So after months of harassing him, I convinced him to teach me the bass clarinet! I studied bass clarinet with him for a couple of years, and that was the best decision I have ever taken in my career.

 

Prometheus is inspired by the Greek legend – what aspects of the story can audiences listen out for in the music?

The concerto is based on a short story by Franz Kafka which treats the legend of Prometheus, the Greek mythological hero who is punished by the Gods for helping man by giving him fire.

For me, Greek myths mean fantastic and unbelievable stories where you have to use your imagination and create your own world. I can create my own world in Prometheus thanks to the range of dynamics Geoffrey has used. The soft passages should put the audience in a state of mind where they almost stop breathing to be able to listen to all the different colours and textures. But you also can feel Prometheus’ pain and hear the aggressiveness of the eagles in some loud and abrupt dialogues between the bass clarinet and the orchestra.

Kafka divided the story into four parables, and the concerto has four corresponding movements. Within this structure, Geoffrey has created a highly dramatic musical response to the Kafka treatment, describing, considering and retelling the four parables and the obscure ending. So much is clear thematically from the opening movement, that listening becomes like seeing.  The listener quickly comes to know the place, the characters and their story in the opening movement. The solo bass clarinet identifies as Prometheus, the falling second heard in the orchestra as the Rock, the orchestra’s rhythmic punctuation the Gods and the piercing trumpet figures the eagles. 

These musical pictures continue to unfold throughout the piece. For example, in the second movement the listener is immediately led to imagine the gigantic creatures descending on flesh, pecking savagely, and the pain of Prometheus’ torture. Geoffrey treats this in such a way that there is a sense of experiencing through textures, instrumentation and motif, not just the perspective of the hero, in random glimpses of terrorising feathers coming, and screaming pain, but also that of the Gods overseeing all and also that of the audience itself.



Laurent introduces his instrument in our guide to the bass clarinet

 

What was it like working with Geoffrey Gordon? Was he already familiar with writing for bass clarinet?

Working with Geoffrey was really easy actually. Before he started to write anything, I sent him a list of requirements and ideas of what I thought would sound great on the bass clarinet but also things I didn’t want to play! I really wanted Geoffrey to showcase the velvety, rich and dark sound of this instrument. I also wanted him to use all the qualities of the Philharmonia, its rich sound, fantastic range of dynamics. I really think he achieved it to perfection. 

 

How does it feel to be the first person to play a new piece?

The first word coming into my mind is freedom; being able to to put your own stamp on a concerto which has never been played before is an indescribable feeling. You aren’t tempted to copy any other version because it has never been recorded, you can just do whatever you want musically, you can imagine your own world – but always with the agreement of the composer of course!

 

Which concerts in our 2018/19 season would you recommend?

If you haven’t heard enough bass clarinet after today’s concert, I’d highly recommend the concert with Maestro Temirkanov on 4 April. We’ll play Shostakovich’s 7th symphony which has one of the best bass clarinet solos ever written. Listen to the second movement really carefully!

The other concert I’m excited about is on 28 February with our Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. It is a fantastic, original and eclectic programme, as always with Esa-Pekka. I am really looking forward to playing the Berio Folk Songs and Donatoni’s ESA, two pieces I never came across before. It is always rewarding for us to add new pieces to our repertoire.

 

Book tickets to hear Laurent perform the new concerto here.


29 Nov 2018

From the Archives: Strauss's Four Last Songs Letter

LONDON SEASON

29 Nov

2018


Almost 70 years, ago, the Philharmonia performed the world premiere of Strauss's late masterpiece, Four Last Songs, with soprano Kirsten Flagstad and conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. This December, the Orchestra returns to the piece with soprano Sophie Bevan and Principal Guest Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, performing in Leicester on 5 December and London on 6 December.

 

Ahead of the performance, peek into one of the defining moments of Philharmonia history - read Richard Strauss's original letter to Kirsten Flagstad that led to the Philharmonia's performance one year later.  

 



Facsimile of Strauss's original typewritten letter, courtesy of the Kirsten Flagstad Museum, Norway.

 

13 May, 1949


At his home by Lake Geneva, bemoaning the poor health that prevents him from attending concerts, an elderly Strauss sits working at his typewriter. Inspired by news reports of an extraordinary recital in Zurich, he has compiled a set of scores for the legendary singer, Kirsten Flagstad, asking her if she would consider performing some of his most demanding songs for operatic soprano, “the performance of which is closed to ordinary singers”. He includes such masterpieces as Frühlingsfeier, Wiegenlied and Cäcilie, but at the end of the letter, he chooses to offer something further: in a now-famous sentence in the Philharmonia’s history, he suggests: “…I also add that I have the pleasure to provide for you my Four Last Songs with orchestra, which are currently in print in London; to give their premiere performance in an orchestral concert with a first-class conductor and orchestra…”

 

Enticed? Read our full programme notes for free here, and book tickets for the concert, which includes An Alpine Symphonyhere.


7 Nov 2018

Music of Today: Q & A with Amy Dickson

MUSIC OF TODAY

7 Nov

2018


We're joined by saxophonist Amy Dickson in our next free Music of Today concert on 15 November, performing Franco Donatoni's Hot as the centrepiece of our composer showcase. 

One of the world's leading saxophonists, Amy's performances fuse genres and styles, and in 2013 she became the first saxophonist to win a Classical Brit Award. We chatted to her ahead of her concert with us, revealing how she first picked up the saxophone, and introducing her passion for new music.

 

Audiences around the world are familiar with the sound of saxophones in a variety of genres, from jazz pioneers like John Coltrane or Cannonball Adderley, to the world of pop, with artists like Branford Marsalis featuring on Sting’s Englishman in New York. But until recently, saxophones have been a rarity in the world of classical music – so what originally drew you to the instrument and led you to this genre?

The thing that drew me to the saxophone when I was child, was the sound. There’s something about it that just touches my ear in a way that other instruments don’t. I had a wonderful teacher who covered all the musical genres with me, and it was classical and contemporary music that always felt like my native musical language. The saxophone is a beautiful classical instrument and actually, when Adolphe Sax invented it, was intended to be a classical instrument - to bridge the gap between the woodwind and brass instruments. 

 



Amy Dickson performing Philip Glass

 

You play a variety of saxophone types, and in your performance with us we’ll be hearing you on the tenor and the tiny sopranino – what are the differences and quirks between the instruments? Do you have a favourite?

I usually play alto and soprano saxophones, as they are the instruments for which most of our solo repertoire is written. Each of the members of the saxophone family are vastly different to play, although they all have the same fingering patterns so, technically, once you can play one, you can play them all - it just takes a bit of work to get used to them! 

 

Tonight you’re performing Hot by Italian composer Franco Donatoni. What do you enjoy in his music, and what would you encourage our audience to listen out for?

I absolutely love this piece - as do so many of my musical friends. It builds in intensity in the most gripping way and it completely effective as a work.

 



Hot by Franco Donatoni

 

Throughout your career you’ve championed the creation of new music for saxophone, collaborating with leading composers including James MacMillan and Cecilia McDowall. Do you think composers enjoy the chance to explore new sounds for your instrument? What’s it like to be the first person to play a brand new piece of music?

One of my favourite things about working with composers is the privilege of getting to know the inside story to a new piece of music. Most of the time, while working with a composer during the early stage of a piece, I hear stories which most musicologists would dream about hearing. Technically, the saxophone is still developing and boundaries are still being pushed. I try very hard to let composers have free reign - which can mean months of work for me, learning new ways of playing, which is really, very exciting.

 

Amy Dickson performs with us in Southbank Centre's Purcell Room on Thursday 15 November, 6pm. Tickets are free, available here.


30 Oct 2018

Q & A with No. 2 Horn Kira Doherty

LONDON SEASON

30 Oct

2018


Ahead of our performance of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben on 1 November, get to know No. 2 horn Kira Doherty, who chatted to us about the Philharmonia's fascinating connection with Strauss, and what it's like to play his demanding french horn parts.

Originally from Quebec, Kira studied horn in Montreal and at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and is now studying for a History MA at Oxford. She enjoys cycling and photography.

 

In the 40s we had a close relationship with Strauss – he conducted us in 1947, and we gave the world premiere of Four Last Songs three years later. Has this connection given the Philharmonia a special way of approaching his music?

Absolutely. The experience of being conducted by the composer himself would have been an extraordinary opportunity for the musicians to have. There are often so many disagreements amongst conductors over how to interpret a certain composer’s work and no way of digging them out of their grave to ask them what they really wanted in this bar or that, so the fact that the orchestra would have been able to hear (and see) it from the horse’s mouth would have meant that they were as close to the intended interpretation as possible. However, you might be asking "yes but what does today’s Philharmonia have to do with the orchestra it was 60 years ago?" which is a legitimate question. None of the players are the same after all. But orchestras are excellent purveyors of tradition and a good one will be able to pass those traditions on, whether it be of interpretation, of style or of sound quality, to the next generation of incoming players. It’s a funny process to describe - it’s happens through a means of consciousness, unconsciousness, osmosis and intuition. And, of course, hanging out with the older generation in the pub afterwards...


"To get a piece like Ein Heldenleben that covers the entire range of the instrument in the first minute of music is brilliant fun"


Right from the start, Ein Heldenleben features some of the most demanding horn moments in orchestral music. How do you prepare for a piece like this, and do you enjoy the challenge?

That’s an interesting question and one that would be answered differently by different players. Personally, my preparation for the piece will have a lot to do with what I have been playing right before. Playing a brass instrument can be quite like performing as an athlete so your muscles will need to be exercised in different ways for different tasks. The muscle shape that I would need for a Mahler symphony as opposed to a Haydn symphony could be as different as the muscle shape that a long-distance runner would have compared to a sprinter. The same muscles are being used, but they’re being used in different ways and so they need to be trained differently. You can imagine then that going from one straight into the other without the right preparation would be quite difficult.

As for enjoying the challenge of the piece, yes definitely! As much as I love playing the horn, there can be quite a few horn parts that aren’t terribly stimulating from a technical point of view (just think pages and pages of off-beats), so to get a piece like Ein Heldenleben that covers the entire range of the instrument in the first minute of music is brilliant fun to play.

 



 

The French horn is one of the orchestra’s ‘endangered’ instruments. Help us persuade the next generation - why should people give the horn a try?

I’ll let you in on a secret- many conductors and composers, when asked which is their favourite instrument, often say the French horn. It’s tempting at first to be drawn to the flashier instruments like the trumpet or the flute (like I was), but after a career in orchestral music making, you soon realise that so many of the most beautiful and haunting melodies are given to the horns. That and they always get the best bits on the film soundtracks!

 

Which upcoming concert in our 2018/19 season would you recommend to people who enjoy this one?

The obvious choice might look like Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all-Strauss concert on 6 December (which will be absolutely fantastic) but actually I’m going to stretch things a bit and suggest the 7 February concert with works by Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky and Eötvös. The reason being that if, as a listener you are drawn to Strauss, it will be interesting to hear how these later composers were influenced by Strauss’s work and how they chose to build on his musical language, pushing it further towards the limits of tonality and beyond.


19 Sep 2018

Music of Today: Powerful Monodramas

MUSIC OF TODAY

19 Sep

2018


This September, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents the first of its Music of Today performances in Southbank Centre's Purcell Room, opening with a showcase of theatrical monodramas by Hans Zender and Philippe Manoury, loosely inspired by Schoenberg's ErwartungIn this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the music and the ideas behind it.
 

Hans Zender (b. 1936) Cabaret Voltaire (2001) UK premiere

1. Wolken

2. Katzen und Pfauen

3. Totenklage

4. Gadji beri bimba

5. Karawane

6. Seepferdchen und Flugfische

The Cabaret Voltaire was established in Zurich by the poet Hugo Ball, and his partner Emmy Hemmings in February 1916, and closed its doors in summer that same year. Short-lived it was, but immensely influential: a no-holds-barred forum for artistic performance, exhibition and experiment, it became a hub for the Swiss avant garde much like Paris’s Le chat noir, had been for French art thirty years earlier. Kandinsky and Klee were among its patrons, but its greatest creation was the artistic movement known as Dada, of which Ball must be considered one of the founders.

It is Ball’s poetry that the German composer Hans Zender sets in his own Cabaret Voltaire. Noise- and sound-poetry, as Ball called them, his poems call forth an entirely original vocabulary, strong on repetition, humour and sound effect, and devised for its uniqueness – ‘I don’t want words that other people have invented’, Ball claimed. On another occasion: ‘We should renounce language, devastated and made impossible by journalism.’ They are among Dada’s founding documents, performed at the Cabaret Voltaire by Ball, dressed as in a geometrical costume of luminous blue cardboard.

Ball’s aim in his poems was to create an intense expressive immediacy that did not depend on the faint ‘echoes of inspiration’ found in words already created and used by others. Zender’s  first movement, ‘Clouds’, begins by delineating Ball’s words into a catalogue, giving each its own instrumental gesture. Yet as the movement progresses, these isolated gestures gradually coalesce, as Ball’s nonsense words do, into phrases rich in implicit meaning. Elsewhere the text suggests its own readings. The third movement, ‘Death lament’, picks up the lament implied in Ball’s text – for language, for Europe, for a lost generation (the poem was written midway through the First World War) – in its funereal tread of piano and percussion. The last, ‘Seahorses and flying fish’, is lighter in spirit, a spray of sounds musical and verbal that glitters as though lit by the midday sun.



Salome Kammer, vocal artist in Cabaret Voltaire

 

Philippe Manoury (b. 1952) Blackout (2004) UK premiere

As Philippe Manoury points out, the key element of a monodrama, like Zender’s Cabaret Voltaire, and his own Blackout, is that it concerns only one character. As a result, he goes on, it need not be restricted to the usual theatrical conventions of space, time or setting. Blackout’s time is elastic, following not the clock of the dramatic scenario (a woman rides a lift to meet her lover; the power cuts out; she waits in the dark; the power comes back on), but that of the woman’s thoughts. As she ascends, time passes slowly; while she waits, and her mind drifts deeper into daydream and obscure memory, it speeds up. Pragmatic, ‘real-life’ time is slow; ‘fantasy’ time is fast. The journey in the lift – in reality a matter of seconds – fills a third of Manoury’s piece.

As the woman’s lonely thoughts wander further and further, up from Manoury’s expressionist score bubbles an unexpected sound: the crackle of a vinyl record and the unmistakable sweet-sardonic voice of Ella Fitzgerald (recorded in 1966). The reference is included in Daniela Langer’s text, which includes lines from Jay Gorney and Sidney Clare’s song of 1933. They are set apart from the rest of the words by a sudden change of font, and the effect is similar in Manoury’s piece: the Fitzgerald both does and doesn’t belong to the surrounding musical world, in that way that distant recollections, following a train of thought, both do and don’t belong to their real-life surroundings.

Yet recollections leave their own trace. Having introduced this alien element into his piece, Manoury studies it closely, transcribing precisely Fitzgerald’s nuances of phrasing and intonation and feeding them into the music that follows, in a sort of gradually dissolving passacaglia. With a concluding flourish the power suddenly returns and the woman’s reverie ends. ‘No! My God! No light! Not yet ...’



Hilary Summers, contralto in Blackout

 

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press) and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition. He blogs about contemporary music at: johnsonsrambler.wordpress.com.


11 Jul 2018

The Virtual Orchestra Fringe - What's on in Bedford

THE VIRTUAL ORCHESTRA

11 Jul

2018


Across July and August 2018, The Virtual Orchestra takes over the heart of Bedford, bringing audiences an immersive 10-room installation and virtual reality showcase to the city centre - all for free. Accompanying The Virtual Orchestra is a vibrant Fringe programme of live performances showcasing local artists and Philharmonia musicians - look out for our Fringe logo!

In this blog post, we'll give a taste of what you can expect, and shine a spotlight on some of the wonderful groups and projects that serve communities across Bedford.

 


MUSIC FOR BEDFORD BOROUGH

Local music hubs transform young people's lives through music across the UK. Here in Bedford, Music for Bedford Borough run a variety of creative ensembles across different musical genres, supported by a network of tutors. They present two massed performances as part of The Virtual Orchestra Fringe - it's going to be loud!

Massed Brass Bands
Thursday 12th July, 7pm | Riverside Square, by The Virtual Orchestra installation

Bedford Progress band join forces with Olney Development Brass Band in a concert at Riverside Square. Each band will deliver a short individual programme before combining to play an arrangement of ‘Mars’ from ‘The Planets Suite’. This is the first time that the bands have met and performed together and it’s hoped that it will be the first in a long and successful collaboration.

Music Centre Concert
Saturday 14th July, 10.30am | University of Bedford, Polhill Avenue

Music for Bedford Borough’s Saturday Morning Music Centre (SMMC) is the setting for a collaborative performance with the Centre’s young students and those of Bedford Music Co-op’s ‘Friday’s Fliers’. Ensembles will perform separately and then join together for a massed performance of ‘Mars’ from ‘The Planets Suite’.

Find out more about Music for Bedford Borough - click here.

 


HEAR AND NOW

Now in its eighth year, Hear and Now is one of the Philharmonia's flagship projects. Crossing generations and backgrounds, it brings together musicians from Fusion Youth Singing and The Tibbs Dementia Foundation's Music for Memory singing group with Philharmonia musicians for an extraordinary creative collaboration, all under the leadership of Artistic Director Tim Steiner.

Sunday 15 July, 2pm | Riverside Square, by The Virtual Orchestra installation

At The Virtual Orchestra Fringe, we'll celebrate the achievements of the project so far, reflecting on some of the stories our participants shared in their music over the years. Hear them perform Take the TimeDaisy Daisy, and God Only Knows (heard in the project film, above), alongside a brand new piece based on Mars from Holst's The Planets.

Find out more about Hear and Now - click here

 



BEDFORD CREATIVE ARTS

Bedford Creative Arts brings artists and communities together to create great new art in unexpected ways and in unusual places. Working in Bedfordshire for over 30 years, wherever you find one of their projects you can expect something inspiring and ever-so-slightly extraordinary. 

Futur-oke
Friday 3 August, 11am-5pm | Riverside Square, by The Virtual Orchestra installation

As part of their current Future Town commission with artist Sadie Hennessy they bring you Futur-oke. This pop-up, galactic-inspired, karaoke booth next to The Virtual Orchestra, invites you to release your inner superstar. 

Using the ultra accessible form of musical performance that is Karaoke, in which failure is almost a positive, they hope to provide a stepping stone into the Virtual Orchestra and the world of classical music.  

Find out more about Bedford Creative Arts's Future Towns project - click here.


22 Jun 2018

Q & A: Michelle DeYoung

LONDON SEASON

22 Jun

2018

Leading mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung joins us this June, returning to the Philharmonia to take on the role of Waldtaube (Wood Dove) in our performances of Schoenberg's masterpiece, Gurrelieder. Ahead of our concerts in Paris (26 June), and our 2017/18 season finale in London (28 June), she chatted to us about her love of Gurrelieder, and the joys of performing with us and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

 

Classical music fans might see a two-hour piece by Schoenberg and expect a ‘difficult’ evening of atonal music, but he wrote this piece in a late-Romantic style – how would you describe the soundworld of Gurrelieder? 

Gurrelieder was begun early in Schoenberg’s career, and he worked on it for many years, well into his atonal phase...however this is not atonal. He was very dismayed at the enormous success of the piece, as he believed in his controversial, atonal works. This piece is very unique, extremely special. From the first chord, the listener is transported into a magical world. The musical journey of the piece describes the story.


The Wood Dove plays a crucial part in the drama, announcing the murder of Tove, King Waldemar’s lover, at the hands of his jealous wife Queen Helwig. What’s the most interesting thing about the role for you? And what’s the biggest challenge? 

One of my favorite pieces to sing is the Waltaube. The aria is definitely a highlight in the Gurrelieder. The music is very exciting and beautiful, and it has a wide range, it’s rich and tender, loud and gentle. It is a challenge to sing, but very fulfilling as well.



The Wood Dove doesn’t sing until the end of Part I, 45 minutes in. What’s it like sitting on stage waiting for your big moment? Are you 100% focussed on the music, or do you let your mind wander? 

Usually when I sing it, I haven't sat on stage the entire time before I sing. Usually I make an entrance...but if not, I adore the music..so I sit there and take it in. I have the best seat in the theatre!


The story of Gurrelieder would make a great opera, but Schoenberg decided to craft it into a huge cantata instead. What do you think are the pros and cons of telling a story without costumes and scenery?

I am a big fan of singing in concert... even operas... as it is entirely about the music... Productions should all be to enhance the story and music, not to take away from it. I have, actually, sung Gurrelieder staged, and it was beautiful...and a lot of fun...but it doesn’t improve the work.


You’ve worked with the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen many times before, notably in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 last October, which was live-streamed around the world. What are you looking forward to about performing with us again?  

I have been very fortunate to work with the Philharmonia a lot, and of course Esa-Pekka... A few years back we did a big tour of Europe with Bluebeard's Castle that was just fantastic. I love the level of perfectionism that the orchestra displays, filled with fantastic soloists, that are also able to create an incredible ensemble. They are also a lovely group of people to work with, and always make me feel very welcome. Esa-Pekka is simply one of the best out there. He creates magic, and is true to the music.


Our performance clashes with the England v. Belgium World Cup match. How would you convince a keen football fan to give Gurrelieder a go?

Whoa.... being a huge sports fan I have to admit this is tricky! HOWEVER, unless you are going to the game live, it can be recorded...and there is simply nothing like hearing live unamplified music.


20 Jun 2018

Garsington Opera: Falstaff

ORCHESTRA

20 Jun

2018


From 16 June until 22 July 2018, the Philharmonia Orchestra returned to its newest residency at Garsington Opera in Wormsley, presenting a new production of Verdi's final opera, Falstaff, to critical acclaim.


"In the pit the Philharmonia Orchestra is in electrifying form under Richard Farnes...You will rarely hear the intricate ensembles delivered with such rapport between pit and stage, nor the drama paced so effectively, nor orchestral detail spring out so vividly."

★★★★★ Richard Morrison, The Times



"The quicksilver intricacy of the score here brightly rendered by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Richard Farnes’s baton."

★★★★★ Michael Church, The Independent


"Garsington is lucky to have the Philharmonia Orchestra in the pit and Richard Farnes conducts with vigour. As befits the 80-year-old Verdi, the performance sprinted to the end with a teenager’s energy."

★★★★☆ Richard Fairman, Financial Times



"Exceptional accuracy from the Philharmonia Orchestra."

★★★★☆ Charlotte Valori, Bachtrack


"Richard Farnes and the Philharmonia Orchestra treated Garsington`s perspex theatre to a regal interpretation of Verdi`s last opera. The plush sounds emanating from the pit felt like a gift for being good, while as ever with this conductor the interpretation never wavered from the ideal. Farnes made light of the score`s intricacies and projected its energy with a tireless sense of joy."

★★★★☆ Mark Valencia, What`s On Stage


5 Jun 2018

The Wind in the Willows

ORCHESTRA

5 Jun

2018


In June, we present a new musical adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's timeless classic The Wind in the Willows, by composer and member of our cello section, Richard Birchall. Starring narrator Simon Callow, get to know our friends Ratty, Mole, wise old Mr Badger and, of course, the irrepressible Toad of Toad Hall, in our two afternoon performances on Sunday 17 June at Kings Place - perfect for a family day out (suitable for ages 5+)

In this blog post, Richard Birchall takes you behind the scenes into the world of a composer, and reveals how The Wind in the Willows came to life.

Music has always been a powerful storyteller, and composers throughout history have found inspiration in tales old and new - either preserving the text (as in opera & song) or purely as descriptive, 'programmatic' music. But the combination of spoken text with illustrative music is surprisingly underused. Prokofiev's Peter & The Wolf is the obvious masterly example; also Poulenc's Babar The Elephant and a handful of more recent works, but the list is relatively thin given the format's popularity with listeners. As a composer, and a lover of both words and music, I found the idea of partnering fresh music to a classic story quite irresistible.



Richard at a Philharmonia rehearsal © Camilla Greenwell

Irresistible, but not without its challenges! The choice of story is of course very important; The Wind in the Willows has the remarkable quality that it retains a genuine appeal for all age-groups, and it features a selection of unforgettable animal characters who lend themselves beautifully to musical description. (As in Peter & The Wolf, each character has its own identifiable theme.) The book itself is of course far too long, so one of the hardest parts was to reduce the story coherently to a manageable size, and to maintain a satisfying balance between the amounts of text and music. The music itself plays different roles though the piece: sometimes taking a supportive role, as the story continues across it; sometimes taking over the narrative. For example the fourth movement, The Wild Wood, is a purely musical description and replaces the text entirely.



Clip of the original eight-cello version of The Wind in the Willows

Once it was clear in my head how the structure of the piece would work, and how much music was required and where, there was the small matter of writing it all... but despite the hard graft it was really good fun! I feel I got to know all those characters - Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger, the weasels and everyone - and spent a huge amount of happy time with them (even if we argued occasionally.) The Wind in the Willows was originally written for the unusual ensemble of eight cellos and performed by the octet Cellophony (as a partner piece to Alice in Wonderland, which I had written for them the previous year); the Philharmonia's performances at Kings Place on June 17th will be the premiere of this new orchestral version. It's a real privilege to have my music played by such a wonderful orchestra - though there is nothing more daunting than putting my music in front of my colleagues and friends! - and also a joy to work again with the incomparable Simon Callow, for whom the piece was originally written.



Richard's original sketches for The Wind in the Willows

My aim has been to write in a contemporary but accessible musical style, to reflect the truly universal appeal of the story. It was enormous fun to write, and I very much hope it will prove enjoyable and engaging for performers and listeners alike.

 

© Richard Birchall 2018

Get to know Richard and his work - read his player profile here.


4 Jun 2018

Music of Today: Composers' Academy - Freya Waley-Cohen

MUSIC OF TODAY

4 Jun

2018


In June, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents the culmination of the 2017/18 Composers' Academy, in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Society. 

Under the baton of Anna-Maria Helsing, we will showcase three world premieres by outstanding emerging composers: Eugene Birman, Freya Waley-Cohen and Austin Leung. Watch the free performance on Thursday 7 June at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

In this blog post, Freya Waley-Cohen introduces her piece, Ink, and the musical characters that develop as the work unfolds. 

 

Coming back to Ink for the final stretch of writing, I found I had a set of characters in my sketches which seemed to me like distinct individuals. I imagine it was like a playwright having a fully formed set of characters before there is a narrative, and then allowing the storyline to emerge through them. There is no underlying story to Ink, and I use the word ‘character’ in the loosest sense possible, but personifying musical materials and instrumental parts made writing a playful process for me. 



Permutations - the project in which Freya worked with architectural designers (you can read more about this at permutations.co)

The practice of personifying musical passages or instrumental lines was a seed planted in my music during a previous project where I was working closely with architects. They regularly personified the structures they designed, and during the process of collaborating with them, I started to absorb this into my way of thinking. 

In Ink this was magnified by meeting individual musicians from the Philharmonia for workshops during the year, and by the way my year unfolded in the Philharmonia Composer’s Academy. Between Philharmonia concerts, workshops, rehearsals and lessons with Unsuk Chin, there were a series of mini deadlines. Because of this timeline, I wrote Ink in bursts, interspersing it with other projects, and adding new sketches to my collection for each lesson or workshop. The time between writing sketches meant that each one could absorb different influences from other projects I was working on. This reinforced the separate characters, even though I knew that the final process would be the weaving together of these passages. 



Freya Waley-Cohen, Eugene Birman and Austin Leung in a workshop with Philharmonia musicians and conductor Anna-Maria Helsing

I have a poetry book by Caleb Klaces on my shelf at home, and as I was naming Ink - which was towards the end of the writing process - I was looking at it. The book is called ‘Bottled Air’, and it always gives me the image of capturing the writer’s breath and bottling it into ink. I like the kick of the K at the end of the little word ‘ink’, and it seems suitable for this piece, which starts with a playful sort of kick, before drifting into softer, airier, spaces. 



Snap Dragon - a string quartet commissioned by & premiered at the Santa Fe music festival, performed in the UK by the FLUX quartet - much of this string quartet is ‘character driven’ in an abstract sense - including in the moments where the four players become individual soloists, pulling out of the framework of the ‘togetherness’ of being a string quartet. 

© Freya Waley-Cohen 2018


1 Jun 2018

Music of Today: Composers' Academy - Eugene Birman

MUSIC OF TODAY

1 Jun

2018


In June, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents the culmination of the 2017/18 Composers' Academy, in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Society. 

Under the baton of Anna-Maria Helsing, we will showcase three world premieres by outstanding emerging composers: Eugene Birman, Freya Waley-Cohen and Austin Leung. Watch the free performance on Thursday 7 June at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall.

In this post, composer Eugene Birman introduces his new piece, Adagio, and the inspirations behind his music.

 

ON ADAGES AND TITLES

I have never been shy about titles, ‘shy’ being an understatement. I have delivered such jewels as “I awoke and there were no walls to shield me from the moonlight”, or the somehow even more excessive, “Come tu non sapessi, che l’amore è un respiro lievitato” (As if you didn’t know, that love is like a leavened breath), all products of poetry that I had recently read and couldn’t shake, or just a musical concept, perhaps verging on the pretentious, that couldn’t be described any more concisely. So, on those terms, my composition for the RPS Composition Prize and Philharmonia’s Music of Today series must either be conceptually impoverished, or I have turned a new page. I titled it, most un-descriptively, “Adagio”.

That, of course, evokes only one famous work in music history - and it is meant to. The Samuel Barber magnum opus, he, perhaps my country’s best-loved musical export, did not inform my piece as much as imbue it. I rarely look back into the past when I am writing a new piece, but it is a little bit like driving without looking into your rearview mirrors. If you are obeying the law, you have nothing to worry about. But if you, like me, believe that speed limits are a polite suggestion, then one has to look back in case a representative of the police force doesn’t share such views. When creating a slightly dangerous piece, one that breaks from authority and convention, it is not a bad idea to know some history. 



Sketches from Adagio

My problem, compositionally, is that no matter how simple the final product, the materials that, literally, ‘compose’ the piece are genuinely difficult to grasp on their own until the piece comes together. And Adagio, indeed, seems to be made of very strange stuff. Fragile sounds as much ‘sensed’ as heard, I truly feel bad for the Philharmonia musicians who must learn it because they will really only get that rewarding musical ‘A-ha!’ moment past the dress rehearsal and probably just when they perform the piece. But just in case, I have sprinkled some more obvious Barber into the music. 

So what is it about? That’s simple. I played the Barber Adagio as a teenager; it stuck with me, and not because it is such a ubiquitous thing. It’s because the music is genuine, it’s so expressive and urgent, and despite my aesthetic being a million miles away from Barber’s, I feel very close to it anyway. My Adagio, despite the sprinkles, has very little of Barber’s in it; it is more about the sensation of remembering something happy from my past. It sounds and feels like the firing of synapses in your brain as you reattach to something you love that you are on the verge of forgetting - and then, like a vivid memory, it comes back. Then the Barber really comes, and just as well, it’s all over. Forgotten!



I awoke... by Eugene Birman

Much later after I wrote it, I remembered a passage from Kundera’s oft-cited The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “The young man looks into her eyes, he listens to her, and then tells her what she calls remembering is really something entirely different: Under a spell, she watches her forgetting”. This piece is kind of like that. If it would have had a long title, those extraneous, spare words have burnt off and left me with the most clear, most descriptive name possible. Adagio - what it literally means is (from Latin), something to be said.

© Eugene Birman 2018

Eugene Birman photo © Kaupo Kikkas


21 May 2018

Music of Today: Christian Mason

MUSIC OF TODAY

21 May

2018


This May, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents a showcase of music by British composer Christian Mason, featuring the world premiere of a newly-commissioned work, Man Made. Watch the free performance on Thursday 24 May at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces Mason's music and his inspirations.


Poetry is an important thread in Christian Mason’s music. Although he didn’t write his first vocal work until On Love and Death – 5 Rossetti Songs of 2009–11, lines of verse appear as titles for many works, from at least as early as his orchestral From Bursting Suns Escaping (2006), inspired by words by David Gascoyne. The movement titles of the violin and piano duo Learning Self-Modulation (2011) even make up a six-line stanza of Mason’s own creation.

The poems themselves offer clues about Mason’s artistic preoccupations: in particular, ideas of revelation and wonder. In the texts, these are often conveyed through images of light and dark – Aspects of Radiance (2005), Clear Night (2007–08), The Years of Light (2013–14) – which Mason’s music translates into resonant, enveloping sonic spaces, punctuated by chant-like melodies, dancing instrumental exchanges, and bright, piercing timbres (chimes and harmonicas are among his favoured instruments). His works often move through stages of transformation, as though passing through successive rituals or stages of knowledge and awareness. In Learning Self-Modulation, for example, the violin is gradually detuned until the penultimate movement, when the violinist takes up a new instrument altogether, strung with four G-strings. “Once this sounds”, writes the composer, “we find ourselves in a new world”.



Layers of Love (extract)

Layers of Love does not find inspiration in a poem; at least not so far as the composer openly acknowledges. Instead, he says, it is inspired by a sometimes-felt desire for something “invisible, unknown and (inevitably) unattainable”. Written in gratitude to the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation, whose composer prize he won in 2015, it offers “maybe a glimpse of the possibility of beauty and transcendence from within the midst of a world where such things are generally granted little importance”. The piece uses a unique instrumental layout to create distinct and overlapping musical spaces – a violin duo, a wind duo (later trio), a central septet. The passage through them is articulated by a flugelhorn, beginning off-stage, who takes up the role of wanderer/wonderer through each layer in turn.

Seeking, grasping, enjoying and possessing: the idea of personal fulfilment through awe-inspiring experience is inverted in Mason’s new work for the Philharmonia, Man Made. This does return to poetry, and specifically three poems by David Harsent, who has worked with Sir Harrison Birtwistle (for whom Mason has served as assistant) on several pieces, including the operas Gawain and The Minotaur. Ocean, Rainforest and Icefield were written in 2014 to accompany photographs by his son, Simon Harsent, as part of an environmental campaign by the World Wildlife Fund.



Icefield, by Simon Harsent

Ocean begins ominously. Among interlocking string harmonics, soft vibraphone chimes and sustained wind tones, the soprano describes a watery Day of the Dead, when the bodies of the drowned return to warn of the finite limits of earth and sky and sea. In contrast, the animated Rainforest tells of a wondrous, rare plant that flowers only once every 100 years, and that no one has ever seen. Mason’s score uses short repeated motifs in free tempo to give the impression of chaotic profusion of life, and at one point includes the performance instruction “gradually accelerating like vines around a tree in a forest-scene timelapse”. Yet Harsent’s text bitterly repurposes the famous Zen koan about a tree falling in the forest with nobody listening: “One press of the boot, one cut of the saw, and who would know or care or count the cost?” The rainforest that Mason shows us is but a backdrop to our duty of care. This warning only sounds more urgently in the work’s final movement, Icefield. Simon Harsent’s WWF photograph is of a majestic ice cliff, filling almost the entire picture frame. His father’s poem, and Mason’s music, however, offer a bleaker outlook, as Arctic silence and whiteness are reconceived as absence, loss and catastrophe. “The water rising fast”, ends the poem, strings and wind anxiously rising with it, “and the music lost”. If Mason’s earlier music exults in beauty and its discovery, particularly natural beauty, Man Made seems to acknowledge our responsibility towards it and the impact that we – still hungry for experience – are having.

 

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press) and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition. He blogs about contemporary music at: johnsonsrambler.wordpress.com.


2 May 2018

Philharmonia Audience Vote 2018

ORCHESTRA

2 May

2018


For the first time, the Philharmonia Orchestra invites you, the audience, to vote for the music you’d like to hear launch our 18/19 residency seasons in Bedford, Canterbury and Leicester this autumn. Explore the ten works on offer below, and vote for your preferred work here.

Voting closes Friday 5 October. The winner will be announced on the night.​

 

BEETHOVEN Overture, Coriolan (9 mins)

A regular go-to for opening concerts, Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture will be well known to many audiences, but how many will know the play on which it is based?  The story of a rebel Roman General invading Rome who is then persuaded to relent by his mother - only to meet his ultimate demise, possibly at his own hands.  Heard in this context, the drama of the music is enhanced, with the final notes dying away into a tragic silence.

Last performed: December 2012 (Bedford & Leicester: David Afkham, conductor) (not previously performed by the Philharmonia in Canterbury)

Bernstein’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, at times wielding his baton like a sword, captures all the drama:



 

BRAHMS Academic Festival Overture (10 mins)

An ever-popular overture by one of the 19 century’s great orchestral masters.  However, this is a work the Philharmonia hasn’t performed in residencies in Leicester, Canterbury or Bedford since November 2000.  Perhaps we’ve been worried about encouraging uncouth behaviour, given all the student drinking songs which Brahms wove into the music – a humorous response to the request for a work to mark the awarding of an honorary doctorate from the University of Breslau.

Last performed: November 2010 (Christopher Warren-Green, conductor)

Sir George Solti and the Chicago Symphony give a typically muscular performance of the overture, led from the front by the renowned Chicago brass:



 

JENNIFER HIGDON Loco (8 mins)

American composer Jennifer Higdon is undeservedly little-known on this side of the Atlantic. A two-time Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, she is one of the most regularly-performed living composers in North America. This short work, Loco, written for the Ravinia Festival near Chicago, celebrates the train that famously interrupts concerts at the outdoor venue. Enjoy a piece of mechanical excitement that builds to a thrilling climax and exercises every muscle of the orchestra. 

Not previously performed by the Philharmonia

Hear the piece here.



It’s also worth listening to her most famous and frequently performed work, Blue Cathedral.

 

HANNAH KENDALL Baptistry (5 mins)

A work which lives and breathes through the Philharmonia - as we gave its world premiere in Newbury on 12 May. Co-comissioned by us, Newbury and Three Choirs Festivals from fast-rising composer Hannah Kendall, this summer we bring its jazz-inspired brass sounds to Hereford and The Virtual Orchestra's Philharmonia Orchestra: Live! concert in Bedford. Vote for it, and discover the sound of the 21st century.

Last performed: May 2018 (Edward Gardner, conductor)

Listen to Kendall introduce her piece and the touching inspiration behind it in our film:


Composer Hannah Kendall On Her New Piece, Baptistry from Philharmonia Orchestra on Vimeo.


 

MENDELSSOHN Overture in C Major (10 mins)

An overture right out of the Classical tradition - heroic melodies, warm woodwind and darting strings. Fanny Mendelssohn was the older sister to the better-known Felix but had an equally prolific and accomplished output of compositions. Such was the expectation of composers in the 19th century, however, that she often published works under her brother’s name – and this overture is one of the works which has been subsequently reattributed to Fanny.

Not previously performed by the Philharmonia

It is an upbeat and energetic work that shows highly accomplished orchestral writing and a keen understanding of how to show off each section of the orchestra (listen out for the undulating clarinet lines, bold horn calls and athletic string writing):



 

MOZART Overture, The Marriage of Figaro (5 mins)

If Mozart were alive now, he’d be one of those infuriatingly capable people that we all love to hate – able to pull off works of genius giving them seemingly little-to-no thought.  This overture is a case in point, composed a matter of hours before the premiere of the opera and yet speaking with all the clarity and beauty that defines Mozart’s music.

Last performed March 2011 (Bedford: Susanna Mälkki, conductor) (not previously performed in Canterbury and Leicester)

Masterful conducting from one of the 20th-century greats, Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic:



 

ARVO PÄRT Silhouette (7 mins)

Pärt wrote this work in 2009 for Philharmonia regular and Estonian compatriot, Paavo Järvi, to mark the beginning of his tenure as Music Director at the Orchestre de Paris.  In doing so, he took inspiration from Paris’s most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower, reflecting “the transparency of the construction” in his music.  It is a piece which seems to expand beyond its seven minutes, at times feeling static and at times propelled forward by a cacophonous and unhinged waltz.  A great piece that deserves to become a staple of orchestral repertoire.

Not previously performed by the Philharmonia

Järvi and the Orchestre de Paris, for whom the work was written, perform it here:



 

SMYTH Overture, The Wreckers (10 mins)

Smyth’s third opera, written in 1906, is a tale of coastal misdemeanour and illicit love. The overture launches us straight into this seafaring world with its swashbuckling melodies and tempestuous orchestration.  The main theme is one you’ll go away humming for days afterwards.

Not previously performed by the Philharmonia

A fine performance here by the Scottish National Orchestra:



 

J STRAUSS Die Fledermaus (8 mins)

Why bother staying for the rest of the opera if the overture gives you all the tunes?  It’s a question that would be particularly pertinent with Strauss’s first operetta, for which his Overture has certainly gained more currency than the theatrical work.  It is packed full of wonderful Viennese tunes that can’t help but make you sway in your seat.

Last performed: December 2006 (Leicester: David Parry, conductor) (not previously performed in Canterbury and Bedford)

Carlos Kleiber conducting the work with great enthusiasm back in 1970:



If you’re a Tom & Jerry fan you can also hear bit of this overture, cleverly integrated into their appearance at the Hollywood Bowl): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpAjbaNBPqA 

 

BOULANGER D’un Matin de Printemps (5 mins)

A particular favourite of our season-opening conductor, Clemens Schuldt, this is a work of lush French harmony and whimsical bird song. The orchestral version is, in fact, a transcription of an earlier chamber work and is remarkably mature for someone who was still only 24.  Alas, it also marks one of the last compositions she was to complete, as her life was tragically cut short by Crohn’s disease. One can only speculate of what glorious music we might have, had she lived longer.

Not previously performed by the Philharmonia

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra & Yan Pascal Tortelier perform the work here:



9 Apr 2018

Music of Today: Vito Žuraj

MUSIC OF TODAY

9 Apr

2018


This April, the Philharmonia Orchestra presents the first major UK showcase of Slovenian composer Vito Žuraj. Watch the free performance on Sunday 15 April at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Joana Mallwitz. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the music and the composer's love of tennis.
 

It’s not often we know much about a composer’s hobbies. But in the case of the Slovenian Vito Žuraj, it is well known that he is a keen tennis player. Keen enough, in fact, for aspects of the game to have made their way into many of his titles. From these he extracts images of force and tension that either relate to the physics of the game itself (Crosscourt, 2008; Top Spin, 2011) or moments in its gameplay (Deuce, 2008; Changeover, 2011), which he then explores in his music.

By its title, Aftertouch might at first seem to belong to this group. Except of course that once you have struck a tennis ball it is no longer under your control: there is no ‘aftertouch’ here. Rather, the term derives from electronic music and a different application of physical action and control. It refers to the act of depressing the keys on a MIDI keyboard a little further after they have been initially struck. This sends a second electronic signal that can be used to alter the initial sound in some way. Often this is just an addition of vibrato or similar expressive effect, but in practice any alteration, from a change in pitch to a complete transformation of timbre, can be programmed.



Joana Mallwitz, conductor
 

There are no electronics in Žuraj’s piece, but nevertheless a striking attention to sonic detail. His ensemble is geared towards extremes of high and low registers, with many swift exchanges from one to the other. The piano’s strings are muffled with cloth and rubber to produce a sound that ranges from small gongs to dull pizzicatos, and the marimba is likewise played with ‘dead’ (that is, non-resonating) strokes. It is at first, then, an ensemble with few sustained sounds. This evolves progressively, however, as though an ‘aftertouch’ effect were being applied to the whole group, and the dry flurries of the start morph into a queasily wobbling chorale.

In Ubuquity, Žuraj's serious figure of fun is King Ubu, the central character of Alfred Jarry’s proto-modernist, proto-surrealist drama Ubu Roi of 1896. A parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, King Ubu is a murderous, gluttonous grotesque who begins the play by killing the King of Poland, followed by many of his subjects. Žuraj’s ‘farces’ for soprano and instrumental groups take the perspective of his scheming and treacherous wife as she describes and then kills four figures (an Italian lady on a sinking ship, a Russian womanizer, a Spanish Humpty Dumpty, and Ubu himself) who are between them guilty of five sins: self-pity, egomania, carnality, and cowardice and brutality. Žuraj’s expressionistic score follows Madame Ubu’s madcap tour of human baseness with an appropriate level of distaste and ironic detachment, incorporating subtle musical quotations along the way – this last a nod to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s collage piece Musique pour les soupers du Ubu Roi; its composer is one of three artists executed by Ubu in the work’s final scene for their ‘impertinent’ poverty and lack of fame.


© Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press) and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 6th edition. He blogs about contemporary music at: johnsonsrambler.wordpress.com.
 


14 Feb 2018

Voices of Revolution: Workers & The State

LONDON SEASON

14 Feb

2018

Philharmonia Orchestra: Voices of Revolution from Philharmonia Orchestra on Vimeo.


On Thursday 22 March, our Voices of Revolution series with Vladimir Ashkenazy continues with Workers & The State, featuring works by Prokofiev, Mosolov and Glière. Musicologist and Russian music expert Marina Frolova-Walker introduces the evening's programme.

By 1924, Russia’s wounds from the Revolution and the Civil War had started to heal. Trading with the West was tentatively resumed, and cultural exchanges became possible once more. In 1925, Russian music lovers were able to hear Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto for the first time, three years after it had conquered Paris. The encounter was enough to turn Russian composers and critics away from Alexander Scriabin, their previous idol, and they now embraced Sergei Prokofiev.

His concerto offered them all they wanted: it combined the bold dissonances of modernism with a reassuring classicism, and even found a place for some nostalgic Russian lyricism in the manner of Sergei Rachmaninov. Both Prokofiev and Rachmaninov were, of course, emigres at this point, but the Soviet government now put out feelers to see if they could be enticed back.

Igor Stravinsky was also invited, but neither he nor Rachmaninov were interested. Prokofiev, however, gave a positive reply, and in 1927, he returned to his homeland for the first time in almost a decade. This was only for a concert tour, but he was welcomed with great warmth and even adulation from the Russian public. This visit set in motion a chain of events that led to Prokofiev’s permanent return ten years later.

The intense musical life of 1920s Russia also produced some new stars, including Alexander Mosolov, who came to fame for his great modernist novelty, The Iron Foundry (1926-27), which had originally been intended as part of a ballet score. ‘Machine music’ was all the rage in Europe thanks to Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 (1923), named after the steam engine that it portrayed, but Mosolov’s Foundry was still more extreme, and also more gripping with something of a heroic ‘hymn to labour’ in the horns.



Coming just before the first Five-Year Plan - which made industrialisation the priority - and we might expect that Mosolov’s piece would be hailed as a kind of theme tune for these titanic efforts. Even so, it received a barrage of criticism for its rootedness in Western musical trends, and the critics accused the composer of being interested only in machines at the expense of the ‘liberated’ workers who operated them.

Mosolov’s harsh modernism soon made him an outcast, and in 1932, he even wrote a blunt letter to Stalin (now a rather grand figure), asking him either to silence his critics or to let him leave the country (The Iron Foundry was now making waves in Paris). For various independent reasons, the critics were indeed told to shut up, but so was Mosolov himself. He began to curry favour with the authorities by trying to write more conservative music, but in 1937, he received a sentence of eight years (reduced to eight months) in a labour camp (for reasons unconnected to his music). His highly original modernist voice never resurfaced.

In the end, it was a relatively conservative stylistic spectrum that was deemed fit for ‘music of the people’. One composer who flourished in this atmosphere was Reinhold Glière, who was already a mature composer in his forties at the time of the Revolution.

Glière had several ambitious works behind him, the most famous being his epic Third Symphony, Ilya Muromets, but even then, his gifted private pupil, Prokofiev, was threatening to overshadow him. Glière was happy to comply with whatever demands the state would issue on musical matters: ‘just tell us what to do’, he said at one official meeting.

In the mid 1920s Glière even pre-empted later trends when he wrote one of the first ballets on a Soviet theme: The Red Poppy, on a fictitious plot foretelling the spread of revolution to China. Staged at the Bolshoi in 1927, this became a classic despite its clunky plot and rather conventional ballet music. Glière modernised his score by including a popular street song Yablochko (Little Apple), which was choreographed as a lively ‘Sailors’ Dance’.



Glière’s conservatism and his willingness to please won him many awards and honours, although he still remained in the shadows of Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, whose greater artistry was duly recognised in spite of their risk-taking and individualism.

One of Glière’s most unusual hits is his Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra (1943), which is in a genre of its own. This work won Glière a Stalin Prize, even though it must have seemed ill-starred: he used the voice without words, passing up the chance of using a stirring Soviet text, and the vocal writing was of the sort associated with Italianate frivolity rather than Russian seriousness. Despite these disadvantages, the mournful first movement captured well the sombre wartime mood, while the joyful finale seemed to look ahead to the better days that would follow victory. In any case, the concerto had become a safe and sure Soviet genre, not least because the state was eager to showcase virtuosos, such as David Oistrakh and Emil Gilels, on the international stage.

As Soviet music entered its darkest period during Stalin’s final years, Prokofiev and Shostakovich were denounced for their formalism (that is, the vestiges of modernism that remained part of their music). Mosolov had shrunk to the margins of musical life, while Glière continued to win awards for his innocuous ballets and quartets, which were always melodious and written with impeccable technique.

‘The people’ were offered music that was beautiful without any hint of excess or provocation – just the kind of music that had been denounced as ‘bourgeois’ in the West. And because a desire for the beautiful and heart-warming never fades, works like Glière’s concerto seem to have stood the test of time and crossed borders much more easily than many of the abrasive modernist masterworks of the period.

© Marina Frolova-Walker


8 Feb 2018

Music of Today: Irvine Arditti

MUSIC OF TODAY

8 Feb

2018


Violinist Irvine Arditti stars in the Philharmonia Orchestra's first Music of Today performance of 2018. Watch the free performance on Thursday 8 February at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the music of Salvatore Sciarrino and Aureliano Cattaneo.

Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices, probably composed in 1817, are among the pinnacles of the virtuoso violin repertory, each one a study in an element of fantastical technique – rapid string changes, double trills, three- and four-note chords, and more. The last of the set, which brings many of these techniques together, has been described as one of the most difficult pieces ever composed for solo violin.

For his own set of caprices, written in 1976, Salvatore Sciarrino turned to six of Paganini’s 24, writing new works that don’t exactly quote their 19th-century models, but instead eerily shadow them. It is as though the Paganini caprices are photographic negatives that Sciarrino has exposed to too much light, or the wrong combination of developing chemicals, to produce related but very different images.

The Sei Capricci are all quiet, without any of the grandstanding bombast of Paganini’s opus 1. The music is almost entirely written in harmonics – notes produced by only lightly touching the strings and sounding much higher and quieter as a result – and employs a number of techniques, such as brushing the strings lengthwise with the bow, or tapping them with the left hand only, designed to produce exceptionally delicate sounds. Yet an irony of the music is that for all its sonic reticence it is no less difficult than the Paganini, and calls for a contemporary virtuoso of the stature of Irvine Arditti (who recently recorded the set). Indeed, that reticence is often a result of the underlying virtuosity: in Sciarrino’s first caprice, rapid ‘ricochet’ arpeggios across all four strings occur at such a speed that the strings themselves have hardly any time to sound; Paganini’s original outline (to which Sciarrino sticks closely on this occasion) seems to dissolve behind a haze of frictionful noise.

 



 

Until 2006, Aureliano Cattaneo had composed almost exclusively for chamber ensemble, developing a sensually intricate style that was nevertheless grounded in a dramatic, even Romantic, sensibility. In works such as his Trio for violin, cello and accordion (2002) moments of extreme fragility contrast with explosive emotions that are only heightened by their intimate setting.

Cattaneo was close to the late Italian poet Eduardo Sanguineti (1930–2010) and they collaborated on a chamber opera, La philosophie dans la labyrinthe, in 2006; Cattaneo also set his poetry in the vocal cycle Parole di settembre (2013). Sanguineti, a leading voice of Italy’s postwar avant-garde, has been described (by his translator Will Schutt) as ‘a poet of the jump-cut, of the mind-in-motion’, and something of his style – a lyricism of fragments, of fleet shifts of weight and perspective – can be heard in Cattaneo’s music.

Cattaneo’s exclusive focus on chamber music ended with the composition of his Violin Concerto between 2006 and 2008. He has written of the daunting challenge of managing the relationship between soloist and such a large accompanying group, and found an answer in treating the orchestra as a ‘super chamber group’. The ensemble version performed this evening, and composed a few years later, was an attempt to resolve that tension differently, through inversion – this time, treating the chamber ensemble as though it were an orchestra. The violin part remained the same, but its surroundings took on new, sharper colours, with unusual instruments such as accordion playing a role. The concerto’s four movements follow a relatively traditional introduction-slow-fast-conclusion structure, but Cattaneo’s soundworld, in which noise of all kinds stands on an equal footing with exquisite melody, is unmistakably contemporary.

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2017

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press).


8 Nov 2017

TO HEAR SIBELIUS, DO WE REALLY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT FINLAND?

LONDON SEASON

8 Nov

2017


A few days before its concert marking Finland’s centenary on 7 December, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Southbank Centre will present an afternoon of talks and discussions on the subject – and a little context goes a long way, argues curator Andrew Mellor.

On 2 December at Southbank Centre, I’ll be introducing a series of talks, discussions, videos and performances focussing on Finland’s journey to independence in 1917 and the role art and music played in that process. The afternoon is part of a series of similar events at Southbank Centre that fall under the title What You Need To Know.

The obvious question that title raises – particularly if you’re planning to hear the Philharmonia Orchestra play some truly astonishing music by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius on 7 December – is this: do you really need to know about any of the things we’ll be discussing?

Some might answer that question with a resolute ‘no’. Music is music, they could legitimately argue: it doesn’t need any geo-political or historical baggage to make its point or to move its listeners. To some extent, I agreed. But as someone who came to music because I love what it does to my ears and my senses rather more than what it represents in the way of knowledge gathering or intellectual nourishment, I would politely disagree.

For me, and I suspect for many others, context and investigative discussion can unlock certain elements in a piece of music that would otherwise lie undiscovered. Historical facts, parallel creative narratives and explanations of musical structure and process all reveal things about music that can make us hear it differently; that can make elements of it speak more vitally, painfully, beautifully and universally.

Here’s an example. On 7 December, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra will play Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite – a set of four orchestral movements that tell a story in music drawn from Finland’s epic poem, The Kalevala. The first movement of the suite is one of the strangest and most distinctive stretches of music Sibelius or anybody wrote. It seems to sustain itself purely through intangibly sourced momentum, and to contain no themes or tunes at all. I thought long and hard for many years about what might be going on inside that piece of music to make it so distinctive and so ‘ordinarily’ exciting – music that gets down on its hands and knees and talks to its audience as equals.



 

The answer isn’t in many music textbooks or even in the score itself (certainly not if you don’t know what you’re looking for). But it is in the historical context; in what was going on at the time Sibelius wrote that stretch of music and how those things influenced him. In fact, the composer was borrowing a structural technique from a certain tradition of Finnish folk singing based on cumulative repetition and slow transformation. If you came to hear Ilona Korhonen singing ‘runo song’ after the Philharmonia’s performance of Sibelius’s last two symphonies in September, you’ll have heard that tradition – or a version of it – first hand. 

Once you hear the ‘runo song’ elements at work in his music, you can more easily grasp Sibelius’s procedures. But perhaps more significantly, you can start to understand how his art was rooted in something deeper than just writing functional, purposeful music. It was wrapped up in new ideas of ‘Finnishness’ that were infiltrating the upper reaches of Finland’s creative life in the years before the country declared independence from Russia. Ethically or not, many such indigenous elements were declared representative of the country’s ‘identity’, an identity that was seen as pre-requisite by leading figures mobilising the populace for independence.

Does that, in turn, give extra weight to the sense of striving and pining we hear in the first part of the Lemminkäinen Suite? And if so, should it? Finland’s process of forging a national identity in art influenced a lot of painting, literature, music and even architecture from the late 1800s into the twentieth century. But when we look back on it now, the story doesn’t seem quite so straightforward.

Two people who know more about that than most are the guest speakers at our event – the real experts. Daniel Grimley is one of the world’s leading thinkers in the area of Nordic music and its relationship to worldwide musical currents as well as traits and agendas closer to home. He has some fascinating, evolving thoughts on the subject. His colleague from the University of Oxford, Eveliina Pulkki, is equally well placed to discuss some of the untruths and hidden truths that surround Finland’s artistic reputation and place them in a broader cultural and social context. Not only has she conducted extensive original research in the field, she also happens to be a Finn.

Eveliina, in fact, will help us look beyond Sibelius, an exercise that might help us glance back at the composer and his music with fresh eyes and ears. So too will the music of a composer who wrote at the same time as Sibelius and in the same country, but in a different style: we’ll hear live music by Toivo Kuula (1883-1918) courtesy of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s MMSF Instrumental Fellowship programme. We’ll also hear, via video, from Esa-Pekka Salonen and from the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto. Sibelius himself will even put in a brief appearance on screen too.

Hopefully that will make you consider joining us on 2 December. If you do, I hope you’ll discover something new about Finland and its cultural life that will enhance your enjoyment of Finnish art, be it music, photography, literature of even film. But I also hope you’ll bring your own ideas – that you’ll challenge all of us who speak and ask the questions that interest and occupy you, whatever they might be. Sibelius loved nothing more than a frank, free, lively discussion with friends. We hope – minus the large quantities of alcohol – to enjoy the same.

Andrew Mellor


30 Oct 2017

Music of Today: Beat Furrer

MUSIC OF TODAY

30 Oct

2017


The Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017/18 Music of Today series continues with a celebration of music by Austrian composer, and founder of Klangforum Wien, Beat Furrer. Watch the free performance on Sunday 5 November at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces Beat Furrer's intricate style.

Works for stage – seven so far and an eighth (Violetter Schnee) in progress – run like a spine through Beat Furrer’s output. Of them, FAMA (2005), performed in London last November, is perhaps the most renowned. In Ovid’s description Fama, the Roman goddess of fame and rumour, lives at the centre of the world in a house with ‘a thousand openings, and no doors to bar the threshold. It is open night and day: and is all of sounding bronze. All rustles with noise, echoes voices, and repeats what is heard.’ Furrer’s hour-long ‘sound theatre’, which combines Ovid with Arthur Schnitzler’s 1924 novella Fräulein Else, was originally staged inside a specially built box. The audience sat inside while the musicians, outside, played and sang through shutters – lined on one side with bronze – that opened and closed, continually amplifying, filtering and altering the sound.

FAMA, described by one reviewer as ‘a miracle’ after its premiere at the Donaueschingen festival, is almost a summation of Furrer’s work, and motifs of echoes and reverberations, as well as processes of filtering and layering, overflow into his instrumental pieces. The piano in particular – with its built-in echo chamber of copper-wound strings – has been an important instrument. After nuun (1995–96) for two pianos and large ensemble, ideas of resonance and shadowing were taken up in the piano solo Phasma (2002) and the Three Piano Pieces (2005) – the latter essentially studies in reverberation effects. The Piano Concerto (2007) sets these investigations within a highly dramatic trajectory. Over its 18 minutes the work traces a broad sweep across the full range of the keyboard, beginning with silently depressed bass strings that resonate sympathetically with the sounds of other instruments, up to the woodblock-like snap of the very highest register. Throughout, the ensemble (which includes a second, ‘shadow piano’) acts like a resonating chamber for the soloist, although not a straightforward one: it has its own agenda, and its reflections – like those within FAMA’s shuttered box – are often recoloured or recharacterised.



Nicolas Hodges, piano soloist

Twice the upward spiral is interrupted, the music’s frenetic dynamism freezing suddenly like a ‘bullet time’ sequence in an action film. The first instance feels like a system error as piano and ensemble appear to have peeled apart and halted one another. The second, after 10 minutes, is longer and has a more melancholy feel however, as though the piano, having reached its topmost register, knows that the game is up. Soloist and ensemble rally briefly, but the music – which had such momentum – has become stuck in ruts and loops, like a damaged CD. Left with nowhere to go, apart from a few cries of defiance, it simply burns itself out.

Despite his love of resonance as a dramatic and thematic device, the surface sound of Furrer’s music – exemplified in both this evening’s pieces – is rather dry, dominated by snapping pizzicati, staccato piano (especially in its very highest, least reverberant register) and muted brass. Resonance, then, is less a matter of washes of echoing sound, but of crisp relationships between a thing and its double.

Furrer’s doubles developed into polarities after the composition of another theatre piece, Wüstenbuch (Desert Book, 2010), whose libretto is concerned with the desert as a place between earth and the afterlife (it is based on Ingeborg Bachmann’s diary of her journey to Egypt in 1964, made in the midst of sickness and after the breakup of her relationship with the playwright Max Frisch). Linea dell’orizzonte (2012) picks up these themes: the ‘line of the horizon’ is where ground meets sky, and Furrer’s piece for nine musicians holds opposing elements – at the start, staccato jabs and drooping glissandi – in a similar balance, at the same time evoking the skyline’s intense, hazy glare.

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2017

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press).


27 Oct 2017

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA: THE FOUR SEASONS

LONDON SEASON

27 Oct

2017


On Thursday 2 November, the Philharmonia Chamber Players continue their free early-evening concert series with a performance of Piazzolla's Estaciones Porteñas (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires).

Bandoneonist Julian Rowlands introduces his arrangements and the world of Astor Piazzolla in this post.

Bandoneonist and composer Astor Piazzolla is the most famous representative of Argentinian tango music. His work transcends the genre of tango, referencing classical music, jazz and rock, and entering the worlds of opera, literature and film.

Piazzolla's Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (Four Seasons of Buenos Aires) were not originally conceived as a suite. The first movement to be composed, Verano Porteño (Summer), was written in 1965 as incidental music for the play Melenita de Oro by Alberto Rodríguez Muñoz. Piazzolla also immediately created an arrangement of the piece for the traditional tango orchestra of his mentor Aníbal Troilo that was recorded in 1967. Otoño (Autumn) was written in 1969, and Primavera and Invierno (Spring and Winter) in 1970.

Many of Piazzolla's major works, including the Estaciones, were written for tango ensembles, the majority for a quintet consisting of bandoneon, violin, electric guitar, piano and bass. Classical ensembles usually perform these works in arrangements. The Estaciones are frequently heard by concert audiences today in the arrangement for violin and strings written by Leonid Desyatnikov in 1996-8 that was popularised by Gidon Kremer. Desyatnikov's version is a work of recomposition that incorporates sections from Vivaldi's Four Seasons (Quattro Stagioni) and passages by the arranger to create a concertante suite for the violin. It is a very effective concert work that doesn't require an extensive knowledge of tango performance practises to perform.


I have taken a different approach in the arrangements of the Estaciones that I have made for bandoneon and string quintet, and by way of explanation I will describe how I see the tradition of Argentinian tango and the music of Piazzolla as related to, but distinct from, European art music or classical music.

Piazzolla studied with the great 20th century classical figures Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger, but as a performer he worked for most of his life within the tradition of Argentinian tango. Tango argentino is an art music tradition in which orchestras (the “orquestas típicas de tango”) employed professional arrangers, but the score is often a preliminary that is altered, developed and embellished in rehearsal and performance. Piazzolla composed at the piano and then changed anything that didn't work in rehearsal with his band. Final performance versions weren't captured in the scores that were eventually published.

Tango musicians understand how to create the rhythmic structures notated in Piazzolla's scores in shorthand, how to add articulation and dynamics to shape the phrase, and to vary the rhythmic structure of melodies. In the extensive solos passages, the lines as notated are a simple framework on which Piazzolla and violinist Fernando Suárez Paz hang their intricate, rhapsodic embellishments. The most difficult aspect of this embellishment for classical musicians is the so-called “fraseo” (phrasing), where the soloist pushes and pulls the tempo against the steady pulse of the accompanying instruments; any tendency to follow the soloist breaks the phrasing, so the ensemble has to brutally resist their instinct to play in the sensitive manner that is engrained in chamber musicians!



The relationship between score and realisation in tango is more similar to baroque music than to any other genre: there is a role for embellishment but not for extensive improvisation over a chord sequence, and a sense of dance is important, even in works that weren't written to be danced. Piazzolla's music resembles baroque music structurally: it often reduces to two contrapuntal melody lines with a bass, and piano and guitar perform a continuo-like role in between obbligato passages. Imagine if we had recordings of Vivaldi and Corelli performing their own pieces – what a revelation that would be. But in the case of Piazzolla we do have the recordings, and with a piece like Verano Porteño we can follow the development of Piazzolla's interpretation through the successive recordings that he made. In tango the recording is the authoritative text, and the primary means of transmitting the tradition in Argentina is through transcription and recreation of recordings under the guidance of experienced teachers. We can create versions of the great classic tangos that are faithful replicas of recorded performances and that serve as a starting point for our own interpretations, which can then develop from performance to performance in a continuation of the tradition.

The arrangements that I have written are closely modelled on Piazzolla's recordings with his quintet, except for Verano Porteño, which is based on the extended version that he created for his nonet consisting of bandoneon, electric guitar, piano, drums, string quartet and bass. So in this movement I was able to recreate much of the string writing using the same instrumentation.


Decisions have to be made regarding how much and how exactly one includes passages that may be spur of the moment creations, sometimes simplifying in order to allow space for new interpretative ideas, while trying to capture the moments of ecstatic rhapsody in a way that will bear recreation without becoming stale. There were passages where I asked myself: is this too crazy to include in a concert version? But I mostly resisted the temptation to censor or to bowdlerise and I will leave it to audiences to decide whether I made the right calls. I think that it pays off to study the recorded versions deeply and repeatedly in order to gain an insight into the decision making and creative processes that forged this repertoire.

Piazzolla was a great composer who spent a lifetime working his musical material and producing many masterpieces, while simultaneously maintaining a performance career at a high level. He also represents the visible tip of an iceberg when it comes to Argentinian tango music, and I hope that as more musicians take an interest in performing his music in the stylistic traditions of Buenos Aires, they will also explore the repertoire of the great orquestas típicas – of Aníbal Troilo, so important in Piazzolla's development, and also of Osvaldo Pugliese, Carlos di Sarli, Pedro Laurenz, Juan D'Arienzo, Osvaldo Fresedo, Florindo Sassone ….

© Julian Rowlands: bandoneon.co.uk


24 Oct 2017

Joseph Phibbs: Clarinet Concerto

LONDON SEASON

24 Oct

2017


On 4 and 5 November, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Principal Clarinet Mark van de Wiel perform the premiere of a new Clarinet Concerto by British composer Joseph Phibbs, in concerts in Basingstoke and London conducted by Edward Gardner.

In this article, Joseph Phibbs introduces the piece and explores the influences that shaped the concerto.

This 24 minute work is the result of a long and creative friendship with Mark van de Wiel, whose extraordinary expressive and technical scope – ranging from standard classical repertoire to the most demanding contemporary works – in large part shaped the work’s form and character.

Comprising four movements, the work opens with a slow introduction, the unfolding of the clarinet’s opening theme supported by soft, sustained strings. A type of rondo emerges, signalled by a soft pizzicato ostinato in the lower stings over which the clarinet’s earlier theme is transformed into a solitary, blues-inspired refrain. The mood here is urban, snatches of dance rhythms accompanying the soloist’s ever-expanding melodic gestures, while elsewhere a myriad of orchestral figuration (first in the woodwind, and later the strings) is suggestive of city lights.

A more lyrical theme appears towards the end of the movement, before giving way to a fast coda. A cadenza serves as a bridge to the second movement, a fast and unsettled type of nocturne-fantasy whose principal thematic material is defined by a short recurring scalic figure in the clarinet which expands and transforms as the movement progresses. A number of contrasting episodes allude to various non-classical traditions to which the clarinet is often linked, including Eastern European folk music, before the movement closes abruptly.  



The third movement, a slow and at times mournful vocalise, is reminiscent of the work’s opening by way of its pared-down orchestral scoring, and features a simple repeated harmonic pattern over which the soloist ‘sings’ in an often impassioned and at times strident manner.

Following without a break, the fourth movement harks back to the urban-inspired world of the first, though here with greater abandon. Ever denser, rising chords in the orchestra punctuate florid gestures in the clarinet, before leading to a faster coda. A syncopated passacaglia emerges, inspired by its literal meaning (‘street walk’), the soloist’s at times wild, quasi-improvisatory lines weaving through a constantly shifting orchestral backdrop, underpinned by the repeated bass line which characterises this form. This in turn accelerates towards the end of the movement to form a faster ‘walking bass’, before a final ascending flourish brings the work to a close.

My thanks to Mark, the work’s dedicatee; the Philharmonia, at the suggestion of former Managing Director David Whelton; and Malmö Live Konserthus, at the suggestion of Per Hedberg, Head of Programming, for their generous support.

© Joseph Phibbs

Commissioned by Mark van de Wiel, the Philharmonia Orchestra and Malmö Live Konserthus.

Film: Watch Phibbs introduce his previous Philharmonia commission, Rivers to the Sea, winner of the orchestral category of the 2013 British Composer Awards.


11 Oct 2017

Voices of Revolution: Martin Sixsmith on Battleship Potemkin

LONDON SEASON

11 Oct

2017

Series Advisor Martin Sixsmith introduces Eisenstein's 1925 masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, ahead of the opening concert of the Philharmonia's Voices of Revolution series with Vladimir Ashkenazy on 12 October.

Most of us know at least something about Battleship Potemkin. The images of the massacre on the steps, the child’s pram careening down them and the old woman shot through her spectacles are celebrated icons of political cinema. But how many of us know what led up to the massacre? What year it took place? If indeed it did take place?

Sergei Eisenstein’s film is set not in 1917, but twelve years earlier, in June 1905. The Tsarist regime had been rocked by two cataclysmic events, the Bloody Sunday revolt in February and military disaster in the Russo-Japanese War in May. Spooked by unrest at home and gambling on the distraction of a foreign war, Nicholas II had sent the Russian fleet half way round the world to engage the Japanese in the Straits of Tsushima.

The outcome was a seaborne charge of the light brigade, the worst naval defeat in Russian history. Outmoded, underequipped ships advanced into a hail of concentrated enemy fire to be picked off and sunk, one after the other. Eight battleships and four cruisers went down before the Russian admiral raised the flag of surrender. Four thousand men were dead, another seven thousand taken prisoner.

Russia had been humiliated and anger with the Tsar boiled over. “An unparalleled crime was committed by those who sent us to our deaths”, wrote Vladimir Kostenko, ship’s engineer of the cruiser Oryol. “Our decrepit, degenerate monarchy was hoping for a miracle, but instead got the catastrophe of Tsushima. It is Tsarism that has been smashed by the Japanese guns. It is Tsarism that bears the shame of this defeat. The whole absolutist system is morally bankrupt!”



Discontent spread quickly. In the southern port of Odessa, sailors of the Black Sea fleet rose up in protest. It was a natural subject for Bolshevik propaganda and in 1925 – the twentieth anniversary of the revolt – Eisenstein’s film made the most of it. We see the sailors on the Potemkin abused by their masters, forced to eat maggot-infested meat and threatened with a firing squad when they complain. The film draws us into indignant complicity with the men’s plight; we share their exaltation when the mutiny spreads to other ships then to the inhabitants of Odessa itself.

The drama is compelling and Eisenstein uses ground-breaking cinematography to intensify its impact. Rapid intercutting between shots, subliminal frames with images evoking pity or horror combine with sophisticated montage techniques to give the film an enduring potency. It was judged so powerful, in fact, that it was banned in several countries, including in Britain until 1954, on the grounds that it would foment social unrest.

But as with so many revolutionary legends, the Potemkin events were less dramatic than their subsequent portrayal. The film’s most celebrated scene of Tsarist Cossacks slaughtering civilians on the steps leading to the docks did not happen. There were clashes elsewhere in Odessa, but it was Eisenstein’s genius that transposed them to the now legendary location. And the final tableau of the pro-Tsarist flotilla switching sides to grant the revolutionaries safe passage out of the port is largely fantasy. So convincing were Eisenstein’s efforts, however, that more than one history book has reported them as fact.

By the time the film was made, the Bolshevik regime had decreed that all art should be clear and simple, with a political message comprehensible to the even the least educated. Eisenstein’s task was to elicit a visceral response from his audience, to channel their sympathies in the correct political direction; and because dialogue was impossible in the era of silent movies, the role of the soundtrack took on added significance. The film needed music that would heighten the onscreen emotions and reinforce its effectiveness as agitprop.



The Austrian socialist composer Edmund Meisel, who wrote the score for the first international screening in Berlin, did a solid job. Delays in getting the film passed by the censor meant he had only 12 days to complete it, but he worked hard to match the music to the action on the screen – not always the case with film scores in the past.

Eisenstein liked Meisel’s music, but expressed the hope that a new score would be written every 20 years. Only that, he felt, would preserve the film’s freshness and guarantee its impact on future audiences, as musical tastes changed. It was an expression of faith in Potemkin’s longevity, a faith that has been justified. New scores were written in 1950, 1985, 2004 and 2011 by different Soviet and Western composers.

In 1975, when the Soviet authorities released a fiftieth-anniversary edition of the film, extracts from three Shostakovich symphonies were assembled into a slightly cumbersome soundtrack, beginning and ending with the supposedly triumphant D Major fanfares and finale from number 5. The use of well-known bleeding chunks was hardly subtle, and the score that will be performed by the Philharmonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy attempts to remedy that by deploying a wider range of Shostakovich themes (from symphonies 4, 5, 8, 10 and 11) in a version that succeeds in sounding more organically connected to the storyline.

Marrying film and live music is not always simple, however, and Eisenstein himself left a warning in his memoirs that should keep modern day performers on their toes. “A 1929 showing of Potemkin in London,” he writes, “was utterly ruined because they varied the projection speed to help fit it to the music. They destroyed the whole rhythm of the thing and, for the first time in my film’s existence, the audience burst into laughter.”

© Martin Sixsmith



3 Oct 2017

Music of Today: Michael Daugherty

MUSIC OF TODAY

3 Oct

2017


The Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017/18 Music of Today series opens with a showcase of music by American composer Michael Daugherty. Watch the free performance at 6pm on Thursday 5 October. Read Daugherty's introduction to the works featured in the programme below.

 

Mermaid Avenue (2016)  from This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest inspired by the life and times of Woody Guthrie

In 1943, three years after composing "This Land is Your Land,” American singer-songwriter and political activist Woody Guthrie was ready to settle down. He and his new wife Marjorie moved to a modest house at 3520 Mermaid Avenue.  Mermaid Avenue was located near Coney Island, the iconic amusement park located on the last subway stop from Manhattan on the Atlantic Ocean. The years Woody spent on Mermaid Avenue were the most stable and prolific period of his nomadic life.  During his years at Mermaid Avenue, Woody embraced the yiddish culture which surrounded him, along with the carnival atmosphere of the Coney Island boardwalk and beach.  But tragedy was just around the corner: in 1952, he was admitted to Brooklyn State Hospital, beginning a long battle with Huntington's chorea which lead to his untimely death in 1967.  

 

Walk the Walk (2005) 

Walk the Walk for baritone sax and percussion was commissioned by Opus 21 for a concert honoring pianist Joe Hunter (1927-2007) and the Funk Brothers, a group of Detroit studio musicians who played on all of the historic Motown releases from 1959 to 1972. Using a deconstructed fragment from the Temptations' My Girl as a compositional idée fixe, I  take the listener through a world of virtuosic Detroit blues, rock, jazz and Latin Motown musical grooves.

 



 

Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover (1993)

Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover for string quartet and pre-recorded sound was commissioned by Kronos Quartet.  The first performance was given by Kronos Quartet on January 23, 1993 at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. My composition is about the man who directed the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation virtually unchallenged from 1924 until his death in 1972. 

My composition opens with one of J. Edgar Hoover's favorite mottoes: “The FBI is as close to you as your nearest telephone.” This “reassurance” to the American public also served to authorize his systematic invasion of their privacy: for Hoover, the telephone became an instrument for playing out his lifetime obsession with collecting sensitive information for his so-called “secret files.” Throughout his 48 years as director of the FBI, Hoover ordered the wiretapping of the telephones of movies stars, gangsters, presidents, civil rights activists, politicians, communist sympathizers, entertainers, and anyone who opposed his own political and moral agenda. 

For me, the motto offers an opportunity to listen in on Hoover’s voice, and to manipulate it for my own compositional purposes. The telephone, like the digital technology I have used, mediates voice so that it is both distant and near. I wanted to bring the dead voice of J. Edgar Hoover back to a posthumous life through technology, so that it may “sing” of its own death. I created the tape part by digitally sampling bits of actual historical speeches delivered by Hoover from 1941 to 1972, to such diverse audiences as the American Legion, Boys’ Club of America, and the FBI National Academy. 

It was eerie to be the first person to hear these tapes since they were made available to the public. I composed string parts to “sing along” with Hoover, in order to convey my sense of Hoover’s grim, threatening, yet darkly comic personality. The part played by the string quartet is also inspired by sounds associated with the FBI, such as sirens, American patriotic songs, and machine gun syncopations. The quartet therefore creates another context for hearing Hoover’s own words: “I hope that this presentation will serve to give you a better knowledge and a deep understanding of YOUR FBI.” 

 

Dead Elvis (1993) 

Dead Elvis was commissioned by Boston Musica Viva and Chuck Ullery, principal bassoonist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It is more than a coincidence that it is scored for the same instrumentation as Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat (1918) in which a soldier sells his violin and his soul to the devil for a magic book. In Dead Elvis, the bassoon is Elvis (or perhaps an Elvis impersonator). Does this rock star sell out his Southern folk authenticity to the sophisticated professionalism of Hollywood movies, Colonel Parker and Las Vegas in order to attain great wealth and fame? Dead Elvis goes far beyond this romantic Faustian scenario. For me, the two clashing Elvis images (the hip, beautiful, genius, thin, rock-and-roll Elvis versus the vulgar, cheesy, fat, stoned, Las Vegas Elvis) serve as a sturm und drang compositional algorithm. Further, my use of the dies irae (a medieval Latin chant for the Day of Judgement) as the principal musical theme of "Dead Elvis" signifies yet another aspect of the Elvis myth: some people believe Elvis is dead, while others believe he is alive and well in Kalamazoo. Perhaps the question is not whether Elvis is alive or dead, but why the phenomenon of Elvis endures beyond the grave of Graceland. Elvis, for better or worse, is part of American culture, history and mythology. If you want to understand America and all its riddles, sooner or later you will have to deal with (Dead) Elvis.

Programme Notes by Michael Daugherty

 



29 Sep 2017

Philharmonia - Live from London: About Mahler Symphony No. 3

DIGITAL PROJECTS

29 Sep

2017


Ahead of Philharmonia: Live from London, a global live stream of our performance with Esa-Pekka Salonen this Sunday, find out more about Mahler's Third Symphony. Programme note by Julian Johnson.

Watch the live stream on Sunday 1st October at 3pm BST, for free on YouTube or on Facebook Live, in partnership with the Guardian.

As he had been with both his First and Second symphonies, Mahler was initially ambivalent about whether the Third was indeed a symphony or a symphonic poem. The early outline sketches from 1895 suggest various programmatic titles for individual movements and for the work as a whole. One such was ‘The Happy Life, a Midsummer Night’s Dream’, though without any intended reference to Shakespeare’s play. Another was ‘Symphony No. 3: The Joyful Science. A Summer Morning’s Dream’. The reference here is to Nietzsche’s Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, usually translated as The Gay Science, published in 1882. If there are any links between Mahler’s music and Nietzsche’s book they lie in a shared tone of irreverence rather than any philosophical content. A third possible title was simply ‘Pan: Symphonic Poems’. The reference to the Greek god Pan, the wild god of nature, was explicitly linked in Mahler’s sketches to Dionysus, the god of wine but also of ecstatic ritual. In both cases, Mahler’s reference seems to be to the timeless force of an unrestrained nature, unordered by the rational or moral codes of modern society, and the music to his vast first movement certainly seems to bear this out.

Like the Second Symphony, the Third is a mega-symphony, a work with a cosmic ambition to sum up the trajectory of creation itself, in Mahler’s own words ‘a musical poem embracing all stages of development in a step-wise ascent [that] begins with inanimate nature and ascends to the love of God.’ This vast conception has to be understood in the context of an age that was highly attracted to grand, all-encompassing accounts of the natural world. Mahler had a lifelong interest in philosophical and scientific theories and read widely in these areas, but he was also part of a cultural tradition in which artists and musicians expected to take on the great themes of life and death. He had a life-long devotion to the works of Richard Wagner, whose last music drama Parsifal (1882) was, at that time, still performed only at Bayreuth under quasi-religious conditions. Mahler’s Third Symphony thus grows out of an understanding of art as a kind of religious and philosophical quest.

Given such a conception, Mahler was understandably frustrated that his symphony became known, before its première, almost entirely through performances of one isolated movement, the so-called ‘Blumenstück’ (‘Flower piece’). In a letter to Richard Batka, of February 1896, he expressed his concern that the public would hear him simply as a ‘sensuous, perfumed singer of nature’:

‘That this nature hides within itself everything that is frightful, great, and also lovely (which is exactly what I wanted to express in the entire work, in a sort of evolutionary development) – of course no one ever understands this. It always strikes me as odd that most people, when they speak of “nature”, think only of flowers, little birds and woodsy smells. No one knows the god Dionysus, the great Pan. There now! You have a sort of programme… Everywhere and always, it is only the voice of nature!’

Many commentators, including Mahler’s contemporaries, heard in this work not just the force of nature, but also that of the new politics of a popular and mass society. Richard Strauss likened the great march of the first movement to the experience of a May Day parade in the Prater Park in Vienna. The unison horn call that opens the movements was heard by some as the quotation of a 19th-century student protest song, as used also by Brahms in his Academic Festival Overture. Critics railed against what they saw as the symphony’s vulgar, banal and frivolous elements, perplexed about how to understand the sudden contrasts between the rarefied world of symphonic music and tunes and rhythms more usually heard on the street. Was Mahler trying to parody the hallowed genre of the symphony in this way? Often, they concluded that he was.


Esa-Pekka Salonen on Mahler's Third Symphony from Philharmonia Orchestra on Vimeo.


1. Summer Marches In (Pan Awakes)
This is an immense movement, conceived on a vast scale – not just in terms of its duration (over 30 minutes for this movement alone) but in its unwieldy form and sheer weight of sound. Few pieces of music evoke such a powerful sense of ‘the world without form’, summoning its materials out of a kind of primeval emptiness. ‘It is eerie’, Mahler commented, ‘how from lifeless matter (I could just as well have named the movement ‘What the Mountains Tell Me’) life gradually breaks forth, developing step-by-step into ever-higher forms of life.’ The opening call, played fortissimo on eight horns in unison, seems to echo into some vast emptiness. A sombre march rhythm begins, the only hint of directed movement, amid low rumblings in the percussion. The emptiness is broken only by unpredictable eruptive gestures, shooting skywards like spouts of molten lava. ‘Some passages of it seem so uncanny to me’, Mahler later commented, ‘that I can hardly recognise them as my own work.’ His representation of elemental origins was, necessarily, also a sounding of the Unconscious.

Out of this lifeless world, form and motion gradually emerge. The first sense of a tangible identity is voiced by a solo trombone, which comes to assume an unlikely central role in this movement. It emerges from the rawness of the opening section, calls into the silence, and echoes out around the amphitheatre of lifeless matter. But from its initial stark monosyllables it gradually learns to speak with a lyricism and expressive tone that make great demands of the player. The entrance of summer and the displacing of winter are marked by a tremendous march, starting from the distance, converging from all directions and eventually carrying all before it. In his annotations, Mahler marked one passage Der Gesindel (The rabble) and another passage Der Südsturm (The southern storm). These are the anarchic forces with which the world is renewed, the unstoppable, irrational and unordered harbingers of the new. Mahler described the storm as ‘raging like the southern gale we are experiencing here these days, and which – I am sure – brings with it fertility, coming from faraway, fruitful, hot countries, not like the gentle east wind we usually wish for. With a march tempo it roars, closer and closer, louder and louder, swelling like an avalanche, until all the loud, jubilant noise engulfs you.’

2. What the meadow flowers tell me
The second movement sees a complete change of voice; in place of massive energy and force we are presented with utter transparency and simplicity. Mahler’s Ländler is marked grazioso, denoting a sense of ease and perhaps even a gentle sentimentality. ‘It is the most carefree music I have ever written’, Mahler said, ‘as carefree as only flowers can be.’ Its tremendous lightness of touch suggests a chamber-orchestra style in which solo orchestral voices often come to the fore. Like many of Mahler’s inner movements, this is a character piece, made up of contrasting sections more like ballet music than the symphonic narratives of Mahler’s outer movements. A sense of dream-like fantasy is never very distant here, more like the world of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream than the grand tone of Bruckner or Wagner.

3. What the creatures of the forest tell me
‘The Scherzo, the animal piece, is the most ludicrous and at the same time the most tragic…This piece really sounds as if all nature were making faces and sticking out its tongue. But there is such a horrible, panic-like humour in it that one is overcome with horror rather than laughter.’ Mahler’s sense of horror is perhaps less obvious to the modern listener, who is more likely to hear the charm of this movement. It is derived from one of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs but, as with the Scherzo of the Second Symphony, turned here into a purely instrumental movement. Der Ablösung im Sommer (The change in summer) is typical of his naïve folk-style. It tells of the ‘change of the guard’ in the forest, from the spring (represented by the cuckoo) to the summer (represented by the nightingale). The symphonic movement takes up some of the simple humour of the song, in which the world of the forest birds and animals takes on a self-sufficient quality.

This world, however, is broken into by a distant fanfare signalling the human world. The famous ‘posthorn’ interlude (written for a flügelhorn) is directed to be played ‘as if from a great distance’. It provides a wonderful example of Mahler’s ability to create the haunting effect not only of spatial distance – but also of temporal distance. What starts out as a fanfare, such as one might imagine hearing from a distant posthorn, becomes a more sentimental folk-like melody. It creates a powerful sense of reminiscence – of looking back to a distant time. Mahler’s forest creatures, at first startled by this intrusion, begin to interact with the new voice. Two horns join in, and the rapt string chordal accompaniment is marked to be played ‘as if overhearing’.



4. What night tells me
The fourth movement brings the distant sound of the human world centre-stage as, for the first time in this work, we hear the human voice. An alto soloist delivers a setting of the dark ‘Midnight Song’ from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (Strauss’s tone poem of that title was written at exactly the same time, 1896). It begins in the depths of night, with a deeply mysterious atmosphere created by Mahler’s withholding any familiar sense of musical movement. In its place, we hear only the gentle rocking of the bass instruments, the slow tolling of bells and ‘sounds of nature’, like the haunting screech of a night-bird (in the oboe). Only gradually does the lyrical expression of the voice, joined by solo violin and horn, begin to draw out a sense of yearning movement in the face of the dark silence of nocturnal nature. In the context of Nietzsche’s philosophical fable, this poem has to do with the prophet’s disgust at contemporary man but also acts as an expression of faith in his potential for transformation. This threshold function is exactly how Mahler’s setting of it works within the Third Symphony – as a borderland between one state of consciousness and another, a place where the earthly and the heavenly overlap.

5. What the morning bells tell me
The brooding, meditative and deeply solemn tone of Nietzsche’s ‘Midnight Song’ gives way to the light-hearted humorous tone of ‘Es sungen drei Engel’ (‘Three angels were singing’). Mahler’s performance direction is keck (cheeky), and it begins with a boys’ choir imitating the tolling of the bells (‘Bimm Bamm’) before being joined by a women’s choir for the song proper. The original Wunderhorn poem has the title, Poor Children’s Beggar Song, and the childlike viewpoint of the song is key to Mahler’s setting here, just as in his setting of Das himmlische Leben (Heavenly Life), originally intended as the seventh movement of the Third Symphony, but which Mahler used as the finale of the Fourth instead. With childlike directness the song tells of the angels’ singing before moving to the idea of sin and forgiveness. Its irreverent tone makes for an unlikely and oblique account of the sinner’s tears of contrition and the promise of the eternal love of God, a divergence between text and setting that was exactly what confounded critics in Mahler’s lifetime.

6. What love tells me
With the Adagio finale, however, Mahler reverts to his most sincere and religious tone. Though this movement is written for instruments alone, Mahler uses his orchestra like a choir. The strings at the beginning are marked sehr ausdrucksvoll gesungen (sung with great expression). The chorale-like texture, the register and movement of the individual parts, all suggest a kind of intense choral singing, and for a while Mahler confines his string parts to the range of singers. The effect, when it comes, of allowing the orchestra to expand beyond the limits of human vocality is all the more powerful for the restrained beginning. This is a sublimated choir, one taken up into supra-human realms by the instruments of the orchestra, and the movement as a whole proceeds in this way, by a succession of expansions rather than by development or narrative. It enlarges itself from within, rising up through a series of ascending plateaux. Undoubtedly, it takes its model from the slow movements of Beethoven; the critic William Ritter was so moved that he claimed it as ‘perhaps the greatest Adagio written since Beethoven’.

The other echo that contemporary critics might have heard was Wagner’s Parsifal. The drama of that opera is played out between the diatonic chorale and march-like materials of the Grail knights and a rather tortured chromaticism associated with the idea of desire and longing. Mahler’s Adagio similarly moves between these two types of music, with the calm assurance of the D major hymn alternating with passages of searching and intensely passionate music. Like Parsifal, Mahler’s music finds its affirmative conclusion in a containment of that chromatic pain within the calm assurance of the diatonic – here, a sustained coda in D major. In doing so, it draws together a symphony of unprecedented heterogeneity, which has journeyed from the raw, elemental world of the first movement with the anarchic energy of its storm winds, through the sounds of meadows, forests and night, to the folk-like vision of heaven. The finale’s vision of divine love is given in a unity and purity of tone that would not reappear in Mahler’s music again until the Eighth Symphony a decade later.

Copyright: Julian Johnson. 


Esa-Pekka Salonen Remembers His Philharmonia Orchestra Debut with Mahler's Third Symphony from Philharmonia Orchestra on Vimeo.


1 Aug 2017

The Virtual Orchestra: Ravinia Festival

DIGITAL PROJECTS

1 Aug

2017


This July, the Philharmonia's VR experience, The Virtual Orchestra, received its American premiere with audiences at Chicago's Ravinia Festival. Join Steph Clarke, the Orchestra's Digital Projects Manager, as she gives an insight into the occasion. 

 

This July, I took a trip to Chicago to install the Philharmonia's Virtual Reality experience The Virtual Orchestra at Ravinia Festival, an outdoor music Festival just north of Downtown Chicago and west of the banks of Lake Michigan. 

Having seen the project at its London launch in October 2016, Welz Kaufmann, the CEO of Ravinia, was keen to premiere the full-length experience in the US. Visitors to Ravinia Festival became the first to see the full third movement of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony in 360-degree virtual reality, watching Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra.



Ravinia Festival takes place over the summer months from June until September. A mixture of pop, rock, jazz and classical concerts take place in its 3,400-seat open-air covered pavilion but the concerts can be heard throughout the 36 acre park so many concert-goers prefer to purchase “lawn tickets” where they can sit in the sun and soak-up the music and atmosphere with a picnic. I was impressed at the spectacular display of picnics I saw on my first concert evening. Visitors were set up for three-course dining. They had brought candelabras, champagne flutes, fine china – the works!

Ravinia is the oldest music festival in the US and has been the host to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1905 - they have been Orchestra in residence there every Summer since 1936. The opening of The Virtual Orchestra was timed to open at Ravinia the same day as the start of the Chicago Symphony residency. 

Ravinia Festival was the first time we had the opportunity to showcase The Virtual Orchestra on PlayStation 4 PSVR and so some time was spent in London preparing all the equipment and designing custom plinths especially made to house the equipment. The set-up required four long days on site in heats of 33 degrees with 96% humidity but I was lucky to be able to overhear the rehearsals and soundchecks for the evening performances as I worked, including Sheryl Crow and CSO.



The Virtual Orchestra was very well received by Ravinia audiences with more than 800 visitors over the course of the week. We were even delighted to welcome pianist Yuja Wang and Conductor Lionel Bringuier – soloist and conductor for the opening night Chicago Symphony concert – before they took to the stage for their evening performance.

The hospitality I experienced at Ravinia and in the USA was excellent. Everyone I met during my trip offered advice and assistance. As I packed up the final box to ship back to London, the Ravinia staff extended their hospitality once more and invited me to a truly American experience – to watch the annual softball game between Ravinia Festival and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A long-standing contest, which the CSO have won for many years running. My cheering for Ravinia mustn’t have gone unnoticed as history was made this year and Ravinia won back the title, for this year at least.



29 Jun 2017

Reaction: Pélleas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera 2017

ORCHESTRA

29 Jun

2017


Andrea Carroll as Mélisande, credit Clive Barda

This June the Philharmonia made its Garsington Opera debut in a new production of Debussy's Pélleas et Mélisande. Here are some of the reactions from across the music world:


"The Philharmonia`s playing is glorious"

Tim Ashley, The Guardian



Andrea Carroll as Mélisande and Paul Gay as Golaud, credit Clive Barda


"Under Jac van Steen’s baton the Philharmonia created exquisite soundscapes in the orchestral interludes and punctuated the vocal lines adroitly"

Claire Seymour, Opera Today



"Rarely has this extraordinary score revealed such exquisite beauty and yet equally hit home with such devastating power"

George Hall, The Stage



Andrea Carroll as Mélisande and Jonathan McGovern as Pélleas, credit Clive Barda


"Even those far from being ‘Pelléastes’ would relish Jac van Steen’s direction of the Philharmonia Orchestra"

Melanie Eskenazi, Music OMH


21 Jun 2017

Composers' Academy 2017: Meet the Composers

MUSIC OF TODAY

21 Jun

2017


The Philharmonia Orchestra's Composers' Academy is a scheme that gives three emerging composers the chance to work with composer Unsuk Chin, Artistic Director of our Music of Today series, alongside members of the Orchestra. The project culminates with a new composition by each composer, performed in concert as part of the Music of Today series. This year's recipients, Gareth Moorcraft, Lisa Illean and Donghoon Shin, will have their works performed tonight at 6pm.

In this blog post, each of the composers introduce their work.

 

Gareth Moorcraft

Reflections (After Gibbons)

My new work Reflections takes inspiration from the Fantasias for viol consort by English composer Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). I think of the piece as a kind of musical conversation which develops and distorts the sounds and materials of the originals, exploring how they can be re-imagined in new musical contexts. Fragments from Gibbons's works form the basis for five short movements, each of which focuses on a single musical element (lines, harmonic progressions, imitative devices and contrapuntal textures). The movements might be considered as miniature portraits or studies, each posing a new question and exploring Gibbons's materials from different perspectives.



 

Lisa Illean

Januaries

Landscape and natural elements seem to deeply influence my mind, my memory and the way I put sounds together. My piece takes its title from Southern hemisphere summers, where elements often seem to share two states at once: where air is swollen with water, and where afternoons give way to steaming rain one sweats in. The sensation of this lingered with me as I composed. It coloured re-imaginings of earlier sketches of music written for the Philharmonia Orchestra (so much so, that I eventually titled the work Januaries).



 

Donghoon Shin

The Hunter's Funeral for Ensemble



For a long time, I have been fascinated by different types of funeral march music in diverse cultures. What intrigues me is the irony in this specific genre - melody and harmony in minor keys express sorrow and remorse while a rhythmic feature repeats itself underneath, evoking slow dance music. For instance, in the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, what starts as funeral music turns into a sarcastic dance. According to the Mahler scholar Constantin Floros, Moritz von Schwind’s woodcut ‘The Hunter’s Funeral’ (1890) was possibly the inspiration for this music.

The Hunter’s Funeral is my response to the same woodcut. It depicts animals carrying the coffin of a hunter in a solemn march. This paradoxical scene gave me a strong inspiration for the piece. It starts with a very simple and rather mundane pitch cell, C-D-E-F. The harmony structure and the melodies in the piece are all derived from the simple pitch cell, which gradually changes colour from bright to dark.

The music is divided into two movements with no gap in between. The first movement has a fast and rhythmic feature like dance music- groovy, sharp and energetic. The tempo of the dance music gets slower and a funeral march emerges in the second movement. Over the repetitive rhythm of the strings, the melodies in the woodwinds and the brass dominate the movement. In the final section, the melodies become heterophonic and eventually obsolete.





15 Jun 2017

Composers' Academy 2017: Lisa Illean on Januaries

MUSIC OF TODAY

15 Jun

2017


The Philharmonia Orchestra's Composers' Academy is a scheme that gives three emerging composers the chance to work with composer Unsuk Chin, Artistic Director of our Music of Today series, alongside members of the Orchestra. The project culminates with a new composition by each composer, performed in concert as part of the Music of Today series. This year's recipients, Donghoon Shin, Lisa Illean and Gareth Moorcraft, will have their works performed on 21 June.

In this blog post, Lisa Illean gives an insight into the process and inspiration behind her work, Januaries

 

I returned to my desk to finish work on Januaries in April, after two weeks in Australia with family in New South Wales and Queensland.  I had at this time many, many sheets of manuscript and some recordings: experiments with microtonal harmony and sketches made throughout the past months for our lessons with Unsuk Chin. There were many versions, unwinding across the page in different speeds and densities.

What I inevitably brought to the desk in this final phase were lingering sensations and memories that were awakened while I was travelling. Like the materials on my desk, these memories always settle in pieces and with some distortions, assembled in a logic closer to that of dreams than waking life. But underpinning these was a sensation—simple and precise—and it was this that I worked towards in the final version of the piece. 

In a world that seems to prioritise the visual, I’m very interested in the relationship between sounds and sensations (and how much of one’s interior life can be communicated through sound).  This is a question that I’ve taken into the many rehearsals, concerts and workshops that I’ve been privileged to attend throughout the Philharmonia Orchestra Composer’s Academy.  I’m very grateful for these opportunities to sharpen my imagination and practical understanding of instruments (and disrupt the pull of solitude that accompanies composing). 

In considering sensations that elude the eye, I am reminded of a description by Simon Leys (sent to me recently by a friend):

“Australian scenery is of inexpressible beauty, it is true, but it is also utterly inconspicuous and non­spectacular—and impossible to capture with a camera: this worn­down immensity, with its half­erased profiles constitutes a magic space entirely devoid of focal point; like ghosts, mirages, and supernatural visions, it escapes the photographer, it does not leave any impression on film.”

Januaries will be premiered alongside two other brand new works by Gareth Moorcraft and Donghoon Shin at 6pm on Wednesday 21 June in a free performance. For more information, click here https://www.philharmonia.co.uk/concerts/1596

Photography © Catherine Pyle



30 May 2017

Music of Today: Mei Yi Foo

MUSIC OF TODAY

30 May

2017


On 8 June, pianist Mei Yi Foo presents a specially selected set of solo miniatures alongside Abrahamsen's Piano Concerto, as part of our free Music of Today series. Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the programme.

Unlike the visual arts, where the study is usually an exercise on the way to a later, finished work, in music it has become a genre in its own right. Yet the set of ten piano studies Hans Abrahamsen wrote in 1984 have played a more preparatory role than usual. Among the last extended works he completed before a long hiatus through the 1990s, they helped him write two works – Four Pieces for Orchestra (2004) and tonight’s Piano Concerto – before the breakthrough success of Schnee (2008). The concerto’s four movements draw on three studies: the Debussian ‘Arabeske’ is revved up a gear for the work’s glittering opening, the clangorous ‘Boogie-Woogie’ forms the basis of the turbulent third movement, and ‘Rivière d’oubli’ provides a tranquil ending.

If the Piano Concerto shows a composer of immense skill and invention, it also shows him at a transitional moment. Within just seconds of that stunning beginning, with the piano’s shimmering arpeggios enlivening a rich ensemble bloom, Abrahamsen yanks the emergency cord, and the movement abruptly grinds to a halt. The second movement – the only one not based on one of the 1984 studies – begins with the piano attempting to reconstruct something from that false start. The music builds once more, step by step, only to collapse again under its own weight. The third movement seems to find a happier home, although it continues to wrestle with dark interjections. Only in the fourth do we reach a compromise, with the piano withdrawing enough to retain control. There are hints of what might have been, but then the piece is finished, a quizzical last interval from the trumpets underlining its enigmatic quality.



Musical studies are also often exercises for the performer rather than the composer, and for players of different ages or abilities. Music for children and childlike music makes up the other half of Mei Yi Foo’s programme. Of these, György Kurtág’s two Játékok (‘Games’ or ‘Playthings’) are closest to educational studies: Kurtág began his eight volumes of Játékok in 1976 at the request of a piano teacher, and the early pieces (both of those this evening are from Volume I) bear some resemblance to Bartók’s Mikrokosmos in their construction of a progressive (if unorthodox) piano method. Kurtág was also influenced by Rudolf Steiner, however, and aspects of Steiner’s pedagogy are clear in the priority Játékok gives to childlike fantasy and physicality.

Elements of both are present in Helmut Lachenmann’s Ein Kinderspiel and Sofia Gubaidulina’s Musical Toys. The latter’s picture-book quality intends to evoke the sorts of pieces Gubaidulina would have liked to play as a child. Lachenmann’s pieces were written for his own children, but he insists that they are ‘Not educational music and not necessarily for children’. ‘Hänschen klein’ transmutes the popular German rhyme into a descent across the piano’s 88 keys and a study in sonority, while ‘Falscher Chinese (ein wenig besoffen)’ (‘Fake Chinese (a little drunk)’) smothers a ‘Chopsticks’-like left hand with parallel triads in the right.

Other pieces engage with childhood in different ways. George Benjamin’s ‘Hammers’ comes from a set of ten short pieces, Piano Figures, that are imagistic, Kurtág-like miniatures. The third of Rzewski’s Ludes harnesses the same bebop roots as Gubaidulina’s bass-playing bear; the first is a pot-pourri of half-remembered tunes and playground rhymes. Chris Harman reimagines piano cycles by Robert Schumann: After Schumann II, No. 2 strips ‘Wichtige Begebenheit’ (‘An Important Event’) from Kinderszenen back to its raw rhythms. Peter Eötvös’s Dances of the Brush-Footed Butterfly evokes dancing wings seen in the garden. Finally, with Unsuk Chin’s scattershot ‘Toccata’ we return to the true compositional étude.

 

VARIOUS COMPOSERS

Musical Toys

For solo piano:

György Kurtág Játékok – ‘Perpetuum Mobile’

Chris P Harman After Schumann II, No. 2

George Benjamin Piano Figures – ‘Hammers’

Peter Eötvös Dances of the Brush-Footed Butterfly

Helmut Lachenmann Ein Kinderspiel – ‘Hänschen klein’ & ‘Falscher Chinese (ein wenig besoffen)’

Frederic Rzewski Ludes I & Ludes III

Sofia Gubaidulina Musical Toys – ‘A Bear Playing the Double Bass and the Black Woman’

György Kurtág Játékok – ‘Ráncigálós’

Unsuk Chin Klavieretüden – V ‘Toccata’

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

HANS ABRAHAMSEN (b. 1952)

Piano Concerto (2000)

For solo piano and ensemble

 

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press). Discover his work on his blog.


26 May 2017

Discover the MMSF Instrumental Fellowship Programme

ORCHESTRA

26 May

2017


The Martin Musical Scholarship Fund, administered by the Philharmonia Orchestra, has given invaluable support to countless young musicians since 1968.​ Ahead of the Young Artist Showcase Recital given by recipients of the Philharmonia MMSF String Fellowships on 1 June, cellist Yaroslava Trofymchuk describes her time spent as a member of the programme. 

Experience is one of the fundamental ways we learn. One can study the theory of how things work but nothing compares to the knowledge gained through a practical approach. This principle holds true for music just as much as in other aspects of life.

I feel incredibly privileged to have this opportunity to work with such an orchestra as the Philharmonia as part of my Fellowship scheme. There are so many things that you don’t learn at college and that are not written in books, things that you pick up just from being part of the ensemble - each orchestra has a different ‘set of rules’: a certain way of playing, of moving, even turning pages in a right way. As a result, with some groups you can feel restricted, worrying about following the rules rather than being free to enjoy the music.

What I find incredible about the Philharmonia Orchestra is that I don’t feel like this. It somehow works so naturally and all the energies from the different musicians flourish organically into a unique music making experience. As I am not currently a full-time member of an orchestra, it’s wonderful that I’m able to feel so comfortable here, playing side-by-side with such excellent musicians – I’m immensely grateful for all their support and for making me feel so welcome!

While the experience of being part of such an organisation is priceless, the Fellowship programme, in fact, goes even further. All of the Fellows have wonderful mentors from the orchestra and receive regular coaching sessions with them, with an emphasis on orchestral repertoire. This has been one of the most fascinating aspects of the programme, as it has given us the chance to gain in-depth knowledge on orchestral music, beyond the more soloist-oriented focus of typical instrumental teaching. We even had the chance to perform in a mock audition! It gave us both insights into the professional audition process at an orchestra, as well as giving us the chance to play through our audition pieces with immediate feedback from the panel.



As part of our Fellowship we perform in some fantastic recital opportunities as well as in chamber concerts. I’m really looking forward to our next performance, at the Royal Festival Hall, where we’ll be playing works by Kodály and Janáček - I’d like to give an introduction to one of my favourite works in the programme, 9 Epigrams by Zoltán Kodály. Originally written in 1954 for two voices (soprano and alto) and a piano, the composer wrote in the score that it could be performed on string or wind instruments, transposed an octave down or up and even performed in a different order, giving us lots of freedom to create our own interpretation of the music.

We transcribed seven of the Epigrams for cello and double bass with a piano and slightly changed the order, placing the lively fifth movement as an interlude between other movements.

Hazaszeretet (Love of my country)
Altató (Lullaby)
Tavasz (Spring)
Gyöngyvirág (Lily of the Valley)
Felho (Cloud)
Tavasz (Spring)
Bánat (Sadness)
Nyár elé (Approaching Summer)
Tavasz (Spring)

The rather unusual register of the lower instruments brings something very earthy and human into the sound. Each movement is about 1 minute long and has its name-character. In a very impressionistic manner the music draws pictures from someone’s very simple life in the countryside, with its dreams, love and sadness.  
 


13 May 2017

Taiwan & Japan - part I

INTERNATIONAL TOURING

13 May

2017


 

Following two concerts in Taichung, Taiwan, the Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen head on to Japan. First violinist Adrián Varela describes his experience of Taiwanese hospitality.

Taichung proved the most extraordinary official and unofficial hosts. We are sad to leave.

When I was growing up, my father told me stories of how as a young man in remote Uruguay he would go to symphonic concerts of visiting orchestras, and at the end of the show, hang around the artist entrance trying to catch some of the artists for a chat. Often he'd manage to coax a bunch to the nearest bar, restaurant, or even his place. In our music library at home we had Philharmonia pocket scores of every major symphonic work, signed by otherwise anonymous musicians from foreign orchestras, their names placed next to their favourite passage of the work they'd played that night.

Last night some Taiwanese concert-goers had stopped Fabrizio Falasca and myself at the door and made a similar invitation, which we deferred to today, our final Taiwan concert in Taichung. Hours later we emerged from one of the most extraordinary, beautiful nights I've ever experienced on tour, one that fulfilled music's promise of connecting peoples across language, cultural and national barriers. 

While the rest of the orchestra was treated to the warmest reception (following two days of mid-afternoon full buffet for the entire orchestra), Fabrizio and I learnt: that one of the ladies had hardly slept the night before from the excitement of our first concert; that another offered her house as a holiday spot; another had seen many of the films to which we have recorded soundtracks.

We talked through the night about music, family, Budhism, borders, politics, life. The evening left us with a fistful of new friends, and three giant canisters, each, of delicously scented local varieties of tea to bring home, courtesy of our unofficial hosts ATC ('Alcohol, Tea, Coffee'). In return, I felt privileged to give away copies of my Tango/jazz CD to them, music which explicitly addresses the coming together of cultures.

Back in my hotel room well after midnight and not many hours from check-out for the journey to Japan, I checked the date and saw, fittingly, that today would have been my late father's birthday.

Both on and off duty, Taichung and the Taiwanese have proved to be of the most extraordinary, generous, sensitive hosts we have experienced in quite a long time.

I hope we can come back soon.


12 May 2017

Lawrence Power, Viola: Breaking the Mould

LONDON SEASON

12 May

2017


On Thursday 1 June 2017, British viola player Lawrence Power makes his second appearance with the Philharmonia Orchestra this season. Digital Producer Marina Vidor explains why his performances with the Orchestra are a little bit different.

We meet violist Lawrence Power for a coffee well in advance of filming with him. He’s relaxed and keen to talk about the solo viola pieces he has programmed ahead of the two concerti he is performing with the Philharmonia this season: Julian Anderson’s Prayer ahead of the Walton Viola Concerto (12 February 2017) and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pentatonic Étude ahead of the Bartók Viola Concerto (1 June 2017). He is committed to breaking out of current classical music programming trends and trying new approaches – in this case solo pieces that introduce a concerto.


"I have always been fascinated by the cycle we find ourselves in with programming. The whole ‘overture-concerto-symphony’ is very much a sort of fashion we’re in at the moment. Maybe we’re slightly coming out of it now – certainly with the Philharmonia, who are doing some really innovative things. You look at some of the early 20th century programmes, late 19th century programmes, of [Joseph] Joachim, for example… It’s just wonderful what they put together, seemingly incongruous things."

Lawrence Power


We agree to make a music video featuring Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Pentatonic Étude, written for Power, as a preview for audiences coming to our June concert. Get a sneak peek here – we release a full video performance of the piece on Friday 19 May on our YouTube Channel.


Several months later we film Lawrence performing the Pentatonic Étude in his agent’s gallery space in Wandsworth, southwest London. MaestroArts has a beautiful art gallery with a good acoustic and we are blessed with a sunny winter morning. The gallery’s walls feature botanically inspired prints by the artist Jan Hendrix. The crew is excited because we’re making the first recording of this brilliant solo piece composed by Salonen in 2008, full of dazzling technique and folk-inspired warmth. Power’s Antonio Brenzi viola, made in Bologna circa 1590, fills the room with sound.

Because the viola has fewer solo works written for it than, say, the violin or cello, Power is committed to increasing the size and scope of its repertoire. In this way he continues the rich tradition within Britain of great violists inspiring composers. Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) and William Primrose (1904-1982) were two of the greatest violists who have ever lived and throughout their careers encouraged composers to write for their instrument, resulting in a number of important new pieces for the viola including compositions by Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge, Benjamin Britten, Gustav Holst, Benjamin Dale, York Bowen, Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Walton. Béla Bartók started his Viola Concerto for Primrose, but left it unfinished at his death in 1945; it was finished by violist Tibor Serly, who had been Bartók’s apprentice. Lawrence Power has premiered works written for him by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Julian Anderson, Huw Watkins, Alexander Goehr, Olga Neuwirth and of course, Esa-Pekka Salonen. 


"The opportunity to work with composers is an honour, really. It’s the greatest thing. To start from scratch and to present something without any influence, without any history… It keeps you so fresh as a musician, just to be aware of all of those processes at their very infancy. When you go back to classical repertoire and having worked with composers a lot, I take back so much freedom. You’re not paralysed by history, by style, or by what people will think of the way you play Beethoven or Bach."

Lawrence Power


Salonen’s Penatonic Étude was written to lead straight into the Bartók Viola Concerto and makes reference to the concerto’s opening pentatonic (five-note) scale. Tickets for Lawrence Power performing with the Philharmonia on 1 June are still available. Gustavo Gimeno conducts, with Mahler Symphony No. 1 in the second half. Click here to book: https://www.philharmonia.co.uk/concerts/1622

Watch the full interview with Lawrence Power here:


28 Apr 2017

Inspirations Part III: What To Expect

LONDON SEASON

28 Apr

2017


The next concert in our Inspirations series with Esa-Pekka Salonen and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, on Thursday 4 May, juxtaposes the music of Debussy and Boulez in an original way. Philharmonia Concerts Manager Natasha Riordan-Eva explains what will happen on the night.

When seen in isolation, colours can look beautiful, but flat. But when we see colours alongside each other, we see the connections between the different shades, the subtleties of how the addition of tones can create warmth or a sense of cold, light and darkness, and how colours complement each other. At our concert on Thursday 4 May, we delve into the sound worlds of Claude Debussy and Pierre Boulez and the beauty of this concert is the order in which the pieces will be performed.

Esa-Pekka Salonen has curated the order of the first half in which the works of Debussy and Boulez will interrupt each other; each piece will lead into the next without a pause and, like seeing colours together, the soundscapes of Boulez and Debussy will complement and inform each other:

BOULEZ Notations IV, for solo piano (1’)
BOULEZ Notations IV, for orchestra (2’)
DEBUSSY 'Gigues', from Images (7’)
BOULEZ Notations VII, for solo piano (1’)
BOULEZ Notations VII, for orchestra (6’)
DEBUSSY 'Rondes de Printemps', from Images (8’)
BOULEZ Notations II, for solo piano (20")
BOULEZ Notations II, for orchestra (2’)
-interval-
DEBUSSY Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra (26’)
DEBUSSY La mer (24’)
 

The solo piano miniatures will be performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard who is no stranger to this concept. In 2010 Aimard presented Collage Montage at the Aldeburgh Festival, a concert in which Pierre-Laurent chose various solo piano works and crafted them together to create a single line of music. Works bled into each other with the fluidity of watercolour paint and pieces you wouldn’t think had anything in common effectively became extensions of each other.

That concert has been at the back of my mind as I’ve been listening to the Boulez and Debussy works we will perform on Thursday. I’ve started to hear things in the music that I hadn’t heard before. Now I hear part of Debussy Gigues in the Seventh of Boulez’s solos piano Notations – is this really my mind hearing something new or am I actively seeking similarities? Do the piano Notations sound less harsh if they are heard in the context of the Debussy works? Does the Debussy sound more contemporary alongside the Boulez? Listen to our Spotify playlist and see what you think:



 

The beauty of presenting music in this order is that as the listener your ears and intuition are on high alert as you are transported to different sound-worlds. Whether you know these works well or whether you are a first-time listener, this concert will allow you to experience these brilliant compositions in an order that has been curated by Esa-Pekka Salonen, whoknows these scores inside-out and understands how they can be crafted together to create a one-off experience.

To enhance the atmosphere, lighting designer Colin Grenfell has created tailored lighting for the first half. We want the concert experience to enhance the experience, and the different moods of the solo piano and orchestral music will be reflected in the lighting. Surtitles will indicate when each new piece begins.

The opening of the second half is a step backwards in time from the Boulez. Debussy started working on the Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra in 1889 when he was 27, and whilst there are hints of his later harmonic language the mystery of Images is not yet there. Fast forward a few years and we reach La mer: this is Debussy at the height of his creative powers. Sun shimmers on the water, waves crash and the wind tears through the sea. Salonen has said that ‘no matter how many times you have looked at every note [of La Mer]…it only sounds new.'

Debussy broke ground with this piece, and surprised his contemporaries who had thought they knew Debussy’s ‘style’. A fitting end to a concert devoted to two artists who took music to the edge, conducted and performed by two musicians who in turn continue to push boundaries.

Tickets for Inspirations: Debussy & Boulez, on Thursday 4 May 2017, are still a available. Click here to book tickets.

Image: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Stravinsky's Les noces, featuring Pierre-Laurent Aimard (right-hand side of the image) on 26 May 2015, as part of the Philharmonia's Stravinsky: Myths & Rituals series.


31 Mar 2017

Principal Guest Conductors: Reaction

ORCHESTRA

31 Mar

2017

Yesterday we announced our two new Principal Guest Conductors: Jakub Hrůša and Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Here is some of the reaction we received from across the music world:
 







 

Classic FM kindly made a splash, featuring Hrusa and Rouvali in last night's #FullWorksConcert:



 

Finnish publications picked up the news, and Finnish Music Quarterly published a feature on Santtu-Matias Rouvali:




30 Mar 2017

Meet Jakub Hrůša

ORCHESTRA

30 Mar

2017


 

The Philharmonia Orchestra has appointed two internationally acclaimed conductors, Jakub Hrůša and Santtu-Matias Rouvali, as Principal Guest Conductors.

In this film, meet Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša, a regular guest conductor with the Philharmonia since 2011 and now part of our new-look artistic team.

Hrůša and Rouvali take up their roles at the beginning of the 2017/18 Season. Both artists will conduct several concerts a year – and contribute to the programming for the Orchestra’s major series – in the Philharmonia’s London Season at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, as well as in concerts across the Orchestra’s UK programme and internationally.

Hrůša (35), hailed in a recent Arts Desk profile as “a leading light among the younger generation of conductors”, has a wide-ranging repertoire, with the music of Central Europe a particular focus. He describes the Philharmonia as "one of my absolutely favourite musical ensembles worldwide. Every single concert we have experienced together since my debut in 2011 has been special in all aspects – the programming, the atmosphere and, most of all, the quality of the music-making." 

He Continues: "I feel truly honoured that I can become a member of this remarkable artistic institution under the inspiring leadership of Esa-Pekka Salonen. To become Principal Guest Conductor and to be in regular touch with the Philharmonia Orchestra’s musicians, and the whole team around, as well as with its public, is definitely one of my dreams come true.”

Jakub Hrůša next conducts the Philharmonia on 6 and 7 April, in London and Basingstoke. See details of all his concerts with the Philharmonia here


30 Mar 2017

Introducing Santtu-Matias Rouvali

ORCHESTRA

30 Mar

2017


 

The Philharmonia Orchestra has appointed two internationally acclaimed conductors, Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Jakub Hrůša, as Principal Guest Conductors.

In this film we introduce Finnish conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, whom we met during a trip to Finland in February, and who gives us his thoughts on joining the Philharmonia as Principal Guest Conductor.

Hrůša and Rouvali take up their roles at the beginning of the 2017/18 Season. Both artists will conduct several concerts a year – and contribute to the programming for the Orchestra’s major series – in the Philharmonia’s London Season at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, as well as in concerts across the Orchestra’s UK programme and internationally.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali (31), is one of the most exciting young conductors working in the world today. He has conducted the Philharmonia in concerts across its UK residencies. In his debut with the Philharmonia at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall in January 2016, Rouvali conducted the Second Symphony of his Finnish compatriot, Sibelius, alongside Rolf Martinsson’s Trumpet Concerto, with Håkan Hardenberger as soloist. “He is the real thing: music unmistakably flows from him,” wrote The Sunday Times.  
 
Rouvali describes the Philharmonia as "a perfectly-shaped orchestra. Its players can pick up any music, are always prepared and technically very skilful. There are so few orchestras around the world who can get close to that. Now I can conduct them: what more could I wish for?"  

He is also looking forward to being a part of the Philharmonia's new-look artistic team: "To be in London with Esa-Pekka Salonen as Principal Conductor is something I can’t wait for. He is a very rich-minded artist, with lots of ideas, and I want to be a part of that. I am looking forward to many future adventures with the Philharmonia.”

Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia in a sold-out Sunday matinee on Sunday 23 April 2017. Following a pre-concert talk in which he speaks to the Philharmonia’s Principal Trumpet, Alistair Mackie, Rouvali conducts The Planets and Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with Alban Gerhardt the soloist. Looking ahead to 2017/18, Rouvali conducts Ravel’s arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition on 5 October 2017.


1 Mar 2017

New release: Nielsen - Flute & Clarinet Concerto; Aladdin Suite

RECORDINGS

1 Mar

2017


In our new release, under Paavo Järvi the Orchestra performs three characteristically fiery works by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen: the Flute and Clarinet Concertos, and the Aladdin Suite.

The concerto solo parts are performed by two of our principal players - flautist Samuel Coles and clarinettist Mark van de Wiel - and recorded live at London's Royal Festival Hall.

Following the success of Nielsen's Wind Quintet in 1922, Nielsen set out to write a concerto for each member and instrument of the quintet, starting with the flute. Two years later, Nielsen started work on the second of his concertos for wind, this time letting the clarinet take centre stage. The Clarinet Concerto was sure to ruffle feathers: following an early private run-through it was described as 'music from another planet'.

Have a listen, and let us know what you think:



1 Mar 2017

The Virtual Orchestra: Esa-Pekka Salonen on conducting

DIGITAL PROJECTS

1 Mar

2017


As we finish this enjoyable project, we speak to Esa-Pekka Salonen about the art of conducting ahead of the culminating concert of The Virtual Orchestra on 1 October 2017.

Have you ever thought about conducting but been too intimidated to follow through on the idea? Watch this video for Esa-Pekka Salonen's tips on what it takes to become a great conductor and why it's such a brilliant role to have in the Orchestra.

This video is part of The Virtual Orchestra celebration of classical music at Southbank Centre.


30 Aug 2016

Universal Notes

ORCHESTRA

30 Aug

2016


Bangalore, India, December 2015. A blog by Digital Producer, Marina Vidor.  

Things are not going according to plan. Catastrophic flooding in Chennai forced the change of our destination at the last minute to Bangalore. We’re in a beautiful hotel that has also suffered minor flooding and the conference room they promised us isn’t available. All 10 of us have to pile into a hotel room.

They have moved the king-sized bed out. I’m not sure how they did this, but it’s done. I have just about managed to set up two cameras and some mics without tripping over anyone. We have all left our shoes, bags and other belongings in the small corridor. The elegant Jayanthi Kumaresh, unfazed, has settled comfortably on the floor and is tuning her elaborate stringed instrument, the saraswati veena, while her pupil sits beside her attentively, ready in case she needs anything. Jayanthi is dressed in a stunning sari, the colour of plum, garnet and strawberry, alternating with gold thread that shines. We all group around her in a semi-circle, and so another workshop begins. The crowded, unusual surroundings melt away as the music starts. Everyone plays for each other and Jayanthi teaches the group a composition she and her husband, the violinist, Kumaresh, have written. The tune gets passed around and improvised upon, the musicians becoming more and more fluid on each turn.

I’m here to document (as an equipment-laden fly-on-the-wall) a unique trip for our musicians, a crash course in Indian classical music. Over eight days, Philharmonia members Samantha (Sam) Reagan (2nd Violin) and Samuel (Sam) Burstin (Viola), along with cellist Matthew Barley and composer Fraser Trainer will take part in a series of workshops with a dozen of India’s great classical musicians. We’ll meet flutists, vocalists, percussionists and players of a vast array of stringed instruments.

Conversation ebbs and flows naturally as the session with Jayanthi wears on. Matthew asks her if she ever gets tired when playing long pieces often at a very quick tempo. Tentatively she replies, “Yes… I do,” and she laughs. “That’s the spiritual angle,” she continues, and describes that when she is playing she is actually breathing at a different, slower rate, almost as if she were meditating. It’s a technique she learned so young that she doesn’t remember when it became second nature. “You ask me if my hand hurts. In that statement we made clear that my hand is not me. So my hand may get hurt, but I shouldn’t. Now what is ‘I?’ It’s not my hand, it’s not my body. My mind tells me my hand hurts, it’s distracting me away from the music. But I shouldn’t get distracted, so my mind is not me. And my body is not me. So then what is ‘me?’ That is the supreme consciousness, which is the breath. And that is why we breath slowly when performing, so that supreme consciousness makes sure that it’s all fine.” Discussions like this continue into the night over dinner.

The Philharmonia has partnered with Darbar, the UK’s premier festival of Indian classical music, to make this extraordinary project happen, with funding from Arts Council England and the British Council as part of their Reimagine India fund. Darbar’s director, Sandeep Virdee, is leading our tour of the finest Indian classical music can offer, with stops in Bangalore and Mumbai. Our musicians will learn about the Carnatic tradition from South India and the Hindustani from North India and learn how pieces are constructed and improvised. It will be a lot to absorb and probably quite overwhelming, but this is also a huge privilege and everyone knows it.

The big struggle is of course improvisation. Western classical musicians are not usually encouraged to improvise during their studies, which is why many find it difficult and even terrifying to try it. Sam and Sam have come on board because they want to challenge themselves to work outside their normal comfort zone of the daily orchestra rehearsal and concert. They’re highly experienced musicians, but neither has pushed themselves this way before, especially not in front of a steady stream of virtuosic musicians from a tradition where improvisation is central. Matthew Barley, a cello soloist who has worked quite a bit in India and well beyond the normal remit of Western classical music, will help our musicians navigate this new path, sharing his knowledge and tips and acting as a bridge between the two traditions. Composer Fraser Trainer, who has worked closely with Matthew for years, will gather material on the trip, eventually putting together a piece that will be premiered at the 2016 Darbar Festival in September at Southbank Centre. They are hoping to create a new style of music that doesn’t compromise the strengths of Western and Indian classical music. It’s a goal to move away from jam sessions and fusion styles and really push to create something fresh and meaningful. I admire this courage and I feel privileged to be on this journey with such an ambitious team.


The big struggle is of course improvisation. Western classical musicians are not usually encouraged to improvise during their studies, which is why many find it difficult and even terrifying to try it.


30 August 2016

As we approach the Darbar Festival, which our Universal Notes ensemble will open in a few weeks, I relish looking back to our trip to India. The colours, traffic, noise, food, music and amazing musicians we met stand out vividly in my memory and are being brought back to life as I trawl through hours of footage. (Keep your eyes peeled for a short film on our trip coming out in early September.) As I watch, it’s clear that everyone understands each other on a deep, musical level, but there is also a real appreciation among the group that they come from distinct musical worlds and traditions. I see furrowed brows as our musicians struggle to remember a melody they just learned, and laughs of surprise and relief when a group improvisation comes together beautifully as people start finding their musical voice. In one session sitar player Niladri Kumar nods in approval as Sam Burstin plays a Bach extract on his viola, deeply moved. Everyone gets it, and they are working hard to meet somewhere in the middle, to find those universal notes.

For the final performance we have added two more Philharmonia musicians: Michael Fuller, bass, and Jennifer McLaren, clarinet. Coming over from India for more workshops ahead of the concert are three musicians we met back in December: Rakesh Chaurasia, bansuri, Niladri Kumar, sitar, and Jayanthi Kumaresh, saraswati veena. Workshops in London ahead of the concert will bring this new piece together. We’re all excited to see how the final piece will emerge and hope you will join us on 16 September at Darbar.

Universal Notes, Friday 16 September 2016, 6.30pm, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London. http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/concerts/1632

Marina Vidor is the Digital Producer for the Philharmonia Orchestra. She looks after the Orchestra’s prolific film programme. Watch more on our YouTube channel, and subscribe for the latest films: https://www.youtube.com/user/PhilharmoniaLondon


9 Jul 2016

Aix-istential crisis… Victoria Irish’s blog

INTERNATIONAL TOURING

9 Jul

2016


Right, well before I launch straight in and describe our workload here in Aix and what we have been doing and what we are about to do, I'd like to describe as floridly as I can my own personal experience of living in Aix thus far!
 
We have now been here a fortnight and Provence is 'heady'. It's a wonderful corner of France and as I write this, sitting under the boxwood tree in my garden, the keyboard of my iPad clicking in counterpoint with the cicadas, the warm wind blows and the atmosphere is abundant with rosemary, lavender and thyme gently wafting in the breeze. I'm not sure that I need a year in Provence, but I reckon we all need a month!
 
It seems a good time to be away from the UK at the moment as everything has gone a bit wrong. The weather is bad, people are fighting in the streets, parliament has imploded and England have lost to Iceland.
 
I am largely immune to feelings of doom and gloom down here in the South of France! We have had a light working schedule this week as Pélleas and Mélisande is now up and running like a well oiled machine and Provence lends itself beautifully to a particular type of inertia that suits me just fine. I seem to have lapsed into the habit of putting off until 'demain' what could be done 'aujourd'hui'.
 
France is a beautiful country and I can't understand how the UK has managed to remain so backward in it's appreciation of food with such a shining example just across the channel. These thoughts are prompted by looking through the photos of the markets of Aix on my iPhone (pictured), which give a surprisingly comprehensive glimpse of 'la bonne vie'.
 
So this is an extraordinary but extremely welcome patch of work. We are lucky and I cannot imagine doing anything this special again!
 
As the days go by, the more usual working schedule of the Philharmonia (punctuated by midnight lane closures on the M1, terrible traffic, troublesome parking and don't get me started on the Northern Line) become a dim and distant memory I'm not sure I would like to return to.
 
So now I should actually mention the purpose of our visit!
 
As I've said, we are lucky enough to be here performing at the Festival D'Aix-en-Provence and thus far we have completed rehearsals and started the run of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. This is an opera which we have performed with Esa-Pekka Salonen before in our home, the Royal Festival Hall, so I already knew that both we and our French audiences would be in for a treat!
 
Pelléas is an opera in five acts and the only opera Claude Debussy ever completed. It is an important work in 20th-century music and the French libretto was adapted from Maurice Maeterlink's Symbolist play by the same name.
 
For me, it is a wonderful opera based on a really quite simple love triangle but the controlled passion within the story line and the descriptions within the text make it intoxicatingly romantic. Pelléas and Mélisande say 'I love you' only once which makes the phrase extremely precious and never cheapened.
 
We, the orchestra are creating the music for an unusual and new concept of the opera here with incredibly imaginative and visually engaging stage scenes. It also helps that I am in the First Violins, therefore getting an arguably better view of the stage than many of my colleagues!
 
Here is an interview with Barbara Hannigan who is singing the part of Mélisande absolutely exquisitely:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=8DiFroWWX1g.
 
Earlier this week the production went out live, and was also recorded for broadcast on ARTE CONCERT website and The Opera Platform: http://concert.arte.tv/fr/pelleas-et-melisande-de-debussy-au-festival-daix-en-provence
 
We have had good houses every night, even on Thursday night in spite of France playing Germany and playing them rather better than we played Iceland. The hall was still packed and the sounds of their appreciation and applause encouraging. In my experience the audiences in France are discerning and rightly fussy!
 
I am completely loving it here and tonight we start work in earnest on a cornucopia of Stravinsky!
 
Fingers crossed that there won't be a riot at this Rite!