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4 Nov 2019

Q&A with Samuel Coles, the Philharmonia’s Principal Flute

4 Nov


Philippe Herreweghe is well-known as an expert in historically-informed performance. What are the main differences between modern flutes and those Beethoven and Schubert would have known?

The flute used at the time of Beethoven and Schubert was very different from the one I use today. The main difference being the flute was conical and made of wood as opposed to the modern flute, which is cylindrical and most frequently made of metal. The flutes of the early Romantic era have a much less powerful sound, making them impossible to play in a modern orchestra.


You performed under Herreweghe earlier this year. Does he ask the orchestra to change its sound to become more authentic for the period, and if so how?

My impression from our last collaboration with Herreweghe was that he was not trying to fundamentally change the sound of the orchestra. He was quite happy that the orchestra should use vibrato. He was more focused on phrasing and balancing the different sections of the orchestra.


Schubert’s Fifth is perhaps less well known compared to his Unfinished (Eighth) and Great (Ninth) symphonies. What makes it special?

Schubert’s Fifth Symphony in terms of its form and structure has its roots firmly in 18th-century style, perfected by Haydn and Mozart. The later symphonies run to almost twice the length. Schubert uses a lighter orchestration, not using clarinets, trumpets and timpani. The prominent flute part also contributes to the sunny nature of the symphony, and makes it such a pleasure to play.


What are you looking forward to most about this concert?

I am looking forward to the programme as it really is my favourite music to perform. With such a marvellous conductor at the helm, all the ingredients are there for a wonderful evening.


Philippe Herreweghe will be conducting a programme of Beethoven and Schubert in Leicester (Wednesday 20 November) and London (Thursday 21 November).

25 Oct 2019

Lili Boulanger

25 Oct


“Now, for the first time, the Grand Prix de Rome for music has been awarded to a woman. This is a significant event. Thanks to Lily [sic] Boulanger, feminism has just won a victory that will be justly remembered… Admirably gifted, she undoubtedly has a brilliant musical career ahead of her.” (La Presse, 16 July 1913).

Lili Boulanger was born into a highly musical Parisian family. Both Lili and her sister Nadia trained as composers; Nadia would go on to become one of the most influential music teachers of the 20th century. Lili’s prodigious talent was apparent from the age of two. As Nadia wrote in 1968: “Music was second nature for my younger sister, Lili… She had perfect pitch and a love of singing even as a child. Fauré himself used to come to our home to read his latest songs with her.” Lili became ill with bronchial pneumonia in 1895, an event that would shape the rest of her life: her immune system never fully recovered, and she was frequently ill with intestinal tuberculosis. When Lili was three, the sisters’ father, composer Ernest Boulanger, died. He had won the Prix de Rome in 1835, and both daughters sought to continue his legacy.


Lili Boulanger’s health issues prevented her from conventional full-time studies at the Paris Conservatoire, but she was determined to persevere. When, in December 1909, Nadia Boulanger decided to move on from her attempts at winning the Prix de Rome (she had come second in 1908), Lili took up the family baton. She studied privately with Georges Caussade and, from January 1912, was strong enough to attend Paul Vidal’s composition classes at the Paris Conservatoire. As Nadia put it: “… she mastered composition … in only three years.” She entered the 1912 contest and did not win, but in 1913 Lili Boulanger made international headlines when she became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, with her cantata, Faust et Hélène. A publishing contract with Ricordi followed, providing Boulanger with an annual income.


Lili Boulanger spent time composing at the Villa Medici in Rome – an opportunity offered to winners of the Prix de Rome – before the outbreak of the First World War necessitated her return to Paris. In 1916 she revisited Rome, where she worked on her five-act opera La princesse Maleine to words by Maurice Maeterlinck, left unfinished at her death. Although Maeterlinck was accustomed to composers using his texts, as in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Lili Boulanger was the only composer he would allow to set La princesse Maleine.


In February and March of 1918, Lili Boulanger’s health declined rapidly, but she continued to compose, as Nadia recalled: “Towards the end of her life, she dictated to me her Pie Jesu. On her deathbed, her strong faith gave her a sense of serenity.” In later sketches and in pieces such as the Pie Jesu, Boulanger was experimenting with innovative techniques including polytonality. Of her sister’s style, Nadia wrote: “… she was able to find the necessary elements for expressing her own very personal message, leaving a short but lasting mark in musical history.”


Feature notes by Joanna Wyld © Philharmonia Orchestra/Joanna Wyld


The orchestra will be performing Lili Boulanger's D’un soir triste and D’un matin de printemps in Bedford (Tue 12 Nov), London (Thu 14 Nov), Leicester (Wed 1 Apr) and Basingstoke (Sun 5 Apr).

25 Oct 2019


25 Oct


Piecing Walton’s lost score back together for its first live performance was a piece of detective work that took Gill Kay and Dominic Sewell two years and several trips across the Atlantic…


Laurence Olivier had several connections with Brighton – he made his professional debut there in 1925, lived there in the 1960s, and became Baron Olivier of Brighton in 1970. So, when Gill Kay, Classical Music Producer at Brighton Festival, was looking for a centrepiece for the 2007 Festival, a live screening of Olivier’s Henry V seemed like the perfect fit. But what Gill assumed would be a fairly simple task turned into an all-consuming two-year project.


The company that made the film had been taken over several times since 1944. Gill traced the film’s current ownership to Granada, and found an ally there who was as enthusiastic as she was about a live performance. A new high-definition print would be ready in time for the 2007 Festival, making the rich blues and reds of early Technicolor as fresh as if they had “been through a washing machine”.



But no-one had a complete version of Walton’s score. Gill scoured music libraries on both sides of the Atlantic to assemble as much of it as she could. She discovered that Walton had given away some pages of the manuscript as a prize at a charity ball in Washington in the 1960s, and the highest bidder was a certain Mr HB Van der Poel. “So I phoned up all the HB Van der Poels in the Washington area,” laughs Gill, “and finally one said, ‘Oh yes, that sounds like my father. He died three years ago and had five houses full of stuff he’d collected.’” Amazingly, she tracked down the wayward pages via Italy and London to the library of Yale University.



The task of filling in the gaps in what Gill had found fell to Dominic Sewell – he calls himself a composer and orchestrator, Gill calls him a genius. His job was to listen to the score of the original film, over and over again, and transcribe what every instrument of the orchestra was playing. “I wasn’t a huge fan of Walton’s when I began,” admits Dominic, “but I have to confess that his work has grown on me.”


Gill and Dominic’s final challenge was that the dialogue, sound effects and orchestral music were all on one soundtrack – standard practice in the 1940s, but full of difficulties for a live performance. Walton had been careful not to have music overlapping with speech at too many points in the film, but still Dominic had to use only the lightest orchestration where dialogue, or the sound of arrows flying through the air, need to be heard above the music.


Finally the score was ready, and the film’s first-ever live performance at Brighton Festival was a great success. It has been performed several times in Europe since then, and we are thrilled to be bringing it to London for the first time.


The Philharmonia Orchestra will be performing William Walton's score with a live screening of Henry V on Thursday 7 November, 7pm at Royal Festival Hall


24 Oct 2019

Meet Santtu

24 Oct


In May 2019, the Philharmonia announced Santtu-Matias Rouvali as its new Principal Conductor Designate, taking over from Esa-Pekka Salonen from the 2021/22 season. So who is the musician The Times described as “the hottest conductor in Finland”?

Meet the man behind the music…

At 33 years old, Santtu is one of the youngest artists ever to be appointed Principal Conductor of a major UK orchestra – and he’s the youngest Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia since Riccardo Muti in 1973. He was born in Lahti in Finland, 100km north of Helsinki. Both his parents played in the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and he spent hours of his childhood in rehearsals with them. His interests go beyond classical music – he trained as a percussionist and played drums in rock bands before taking up conducting.


Santtu’s life at the Philharmonia so far…

He first conducted the Philharmonia in 2013 on a five-concert UK tour. He made his first Royal Festival Hall appearance with the Orchestra three years later in 2016. Santtu has been the Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor since 2017 – leading them in acclaimed performances of Holst’s The Planets, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 and Strauss’s epic Alpine Symphony. We were delighted to announce him as our Principal Conductor Designate in May when he performed a programme of Stravinsky with fellow Finn, Pekka Kuusisto, and we are excited to have him back at Royal Festival Hall for three more concerts this season.

What audiences and press say…

His performances with the Philharmonia have made quite an impression: “SanttuMatias Rouvali held us all in rapture, a magician conjuring magic from the podium” (audience member). In the papers he’s been described as “The real thing: music unmistakeably flows from him” by the Sunday Times, while The Guardian has praised the “sizzling virtuosity and vividness” he draws from performances with the Philharmonia. In the six years since he first conducted the Orchestra, their relationship has blossomed – “This kind of electricity doesn’t come along often,” wrote Arts Desk.


In his own words…

“I am honoured to be the new Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia. This is the start of a great adventure – the players of the Philharmonia can do anything: they are enormously talented and show an incredible hunger to create great performances. There is huge possibility with this orchestra, and we will do great things together.”


Santtu will be touring the UK with the orchestra, visiting Canterbury (Wednesday 30 October), Bedford (Thursday 31 October), Cambridge (Friday 1 November), and London (Sunday 3 November). 

30 Sep 2019

Q&A with Tamara Stefanovich

30 Sep


This will be your first time performing under Karl-Heinz Steffens. How are you feeling about it?

I was lucky and instantly inspired when I heard him in Berlin recently doing Fidelio – it had vitality, rhythmic precision as well as elasticity, and a sense of surprise and drama hard to convey in any repertoire but especially in this period. So, I am eager to discover him as a partner in Mozart.

You started playing piano at a very young age. Do you think your talent has come from nurture or nature?

From inner necessity. Of course nature and nurture play their parts, but a continuous burning desire for communication is what makes us all pour into concert halls, with performers and public-dialogue operating at a heightened level.

You have talked in the past about a challenging period of your life when you didn’t perform for almost a decade. What helped you maintain the motivation to one day be back performing again?

I pondered many different professions and life choices, but performing was like a drug to me and I ultimately felt that the right to exist in a certain way cannot wait for an answer from life and its practicalities. Also, encountering the right pieces that invaded my whole being, like Boulez’s Sonata No. 2; the cheerful feeling of being kidnapped by a genial monster!

You have previously mentioned that you always want your talent to be useful. How do you feel being a classical musician is useful in today’s world?

If we treat ourselves, the works, the stage, the public and all of daily life with the utmost respect, then usefulness has to be part of it, otherwise it’s just an ego trip. Finding our special talent and trying to be mindful how we employ it is THE most important lesson. For me, playing limitless concerts without being useful to family, community and friends has little to do with a fulfilled life.

You regularly perform and record repertoire from different periods, including contemporary works. Do you have a favourite period or composer?

Anyone who challenges me on all levels – not in order to overcome the challenge but to make myself grow and at the same time accept my current limits.

The Philharmonia has recently signed the Keychange 50/50 Pledge, which strives to redress the gender imbalance in the music industry. What are your thoughts on this?

Any action trying to address an imbalance has to start radical. It is not for us to analyse but rather to act. Future generations will point out new directions, but new paths have to begin with a clear line.

Which of the concerts in our 2019/20 London season would you recommend?

I would literally go to all of them if I could, but there are three Music of Today events that particularly arouse my curiosity: Augusta Read Thomas on 28 November, Esa-Pekka Salonen on 19 March and the Composers’ Academy on 21 May.

Hear Tamara perform Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27, K. 595 at Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 20 October 2019.

4 Jun 2019

The Women of Weimar

4 Jun


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

4 Apr 2019

Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony: The First Performance

4 Apr


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

19 Mar


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!

25 Jan 2019

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

25 Jan


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.

13 Dec 2018

Q & A with Principal Bass Clarinet Laurent Ben Slimane

13 Dec


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

29 Nov


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.

30 Oct 2018

Q & A with No. 2 Horn Kira Doherty

30 Oct


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.

22 Jun 2018

Q & A: Michelle DeYoung

22 Jun


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 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.

14 Feb 2018

Voices of Revolution: Workers & The State

14 Feb


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 Nov 2017


8 Nov


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

27 Oct 2017


27 Oct


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:

24 Oct 2017

Joseph Phibbs: Clarinet Concerto

24 Oct


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

11 Oct


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

12 May 2017

Lawrence Power, Viola: Breaking the Mould

12 May


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:

Watch the full interview with Lawrence Power here:

28 Apr 2017

Inspirations Part III: What To Expect

28 Apr


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’)
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.