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Kenneth Leighton: Laudes Musicae

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Green Bushes

Last Sunday was a beautiful spring day, so I decided to go for a walk. I had a route in mind, and drove a few miles to the large, flat expanse of Greenham Common. This former military site – synonymous with anti-nuclear protest camps in the 1980s – once contained one of the longest runways in Europe. Happily, it was converted back to grazing and recreation land about 20 years ago. It’s now a fantastic community resource, and I walk and cycle there a lot. But it was only my starting point this time.

I headed off on a path leaving the common. It follows a wooded gulley which runs down into the Kennet valley below. I love this path – with huge mature trees looming either side of you, and a small stream winding down, it’s like entering a little pocket of another world.

This area is unusually rich in history, even by British standards. Nearby is a site where Palaeolithic hand axes were discovered – the tools of nomadic hunters who camped here as early as 13,000 years ago. Other evidence suggests the possibility of continuous habitation in this part of the valley for the last 10,000 years, though it’s difficult to prove conclusively.

My plan was to get to the canalised river Kennet, then turn west along the towpath, eventually coming back up the hillside on a different footpath which I’d noticed on my OS map, but had never walked before.

A pool beside the Kennet and Avon canal.

Following the river, I started to hum a tune that I’d heard on Radio 3 that morning. It was the folk song Green Bushes, from Percy Grainger’s orchestral setting.

I already knew (and loved) a slightly different version of this tune in The New Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs. The lyrics start with the narrator going for a walk in May, and having a chance encounter with a young girl. He then proposes she forsake her true love and marry him – somewhat hastily, it must be said, but that’s folksong for you.

When I had first seen the tune in my book, I imagined it as a gently flowing melody. But the Grainger version on the radio treated it so energetically, that at first I didn’t recognise it. It sounds slightly demented: a psychedelic spring, bursting with life and libido.

In fact, if you look through an English folksong collection, you’ll find that a remarkable number of them begin with a variation on this theme: walking out in the spring and having a chance encounter. What is it about that scenario? I suppose spring is a metaphor for youth – one reason why poets idealise it. A fine spring day is like discovering life afresh. The land is awakening. No wonder it seems ripe with possibility, romantic or otherwise.

But while instant marriage proposals are mostly the stuff of fiction, spring is certainly a good time to find nature. Last year I heard a cuckoo calling along this stretch of towpath. It was tantalisingly close, and I stood for several minutes trying to spot it among the trees – all in vain. It’s still too early for their arrival this year, so on Sunday I had to make do with the laughing ‘yaffle’ of a green woodpecker, wafting mockingly on the breeze. Meanwhile a wren flitted among the dry reeds, firing its bullet notes beside the sparkling water, a tiny ball of cock-tailed aggression.

When I found the footpath heading back up the hill, I was surprised by a startlingly long perspective: the far end of Newbury Racecourse, its length extremely foreshortened behind a wire fence. On my other side, an enclosed field was bedecked with signs warning me it was ‘not a play area’ (it hardly looked like a plausible candidate for one).

Such sights only remind you how much of Britain’s countryside is enclosed for one private use or another – whether military, agricultural, or moneyed recreation. The colonisation of south-east England by golf courses, for example, is one particularly rampant and much-discussed phenomenon.

This makes the rare instances of public reclamation, like Greenham Common, especially precious. Because in the English countryside you’re always under suspicion of over-stepping a boundary. Any spring walk will almost certainly include chance encounters with the signage of paranoid landowners: Keep Out. Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. At least we can deceive ourselves that birdsong is joyful – this ugly human territoriality only sings a sour note.

Thankfully, a happier discovery awaited me further up the path. It was the entrance to a nature reserve I never knew existed before: Bowdown Woods. Here was a more welcoming sign, showing several nature trails that dip through the wooded gullies carved by streams flowing down to the Kennet.

It was clear that this was a more scenic route back to my car, so I took the diversion. The gamble of trying out a new path paid off, and the ramble up and down the surprisingly steep gulley sides, with glimpses of valley views through the tall trees, was delightful.

I look forward to coming back here again as the months progress. As it happens, I made a firm new year’s resolution to finally spot a cuckoo. If I’m successful, perhaps I will see the same one I heard last year – returning to the Kennet’s side from his African winter, singing in hope of his own romantic liaison.

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A Walk With Haydn

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Dance: Jason Vieaux, Escher Quintet

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Songs Without Words

Sadly, there aren’t many youth discounts I can claim with any honesty these days. But I recently found myself just the right side of 35 to buy a cheeky £5 ticket to the Wigmore Hall. What this generously high threshold says about the demographics of their audiences I can only guess, but I was pleased, as it had been a regrettably long time since I’ve pulled up a pew in that hallowed chapel to chamber music. 

I was acting on a recommendation to hear the rarely-performed Richafort Requiem, along with some Josquin, sung by the Austria-based vocal ensemble Cinquecento. 

Perhaps this was a little too much Renaissance music for a Friday evening, because the hall was only patchily filled. I was even able to bag a seat near the front at the last minute – one I’ll have to shell out £40 for in six month’s time. 

More’s the pity – because the singing of this rather sober-looking choir was exquisite. The Richafort, with its rich six-part harmonies, was the stand-out work of the evening. 

And yet, for all this, something was missing.

It reminded me of another concert a few months ago. In Newbury, a local choir put together a programme celebrating ‘friendship’ between countries across Europe, as represented by their various composers. In the run-up to the original Brexit date of 29th March, I was amused by the undisguised political point being made. It also had a good mix of music I liked and music I was interested to hear, so I went along.

Perhaps I should have noticed something wasn’t right from the works list. You’d expect the theme of ‘friendship’ to bring out positive sentiments – maybe a saucy madrigal about women and wine, or something stirringly idealistic. Not so much. This choir, conducted by a former member of The Sixteen, went in heavy with the cloistered religious vibes. 

If this was the music of friendship, I thought, why was it on its knees in a cassock? Cornysh’s Woefully Arrayed was a case in point. A wonderful work in its own gothic way – and its title all too accurate about the state of UK politics right now – but it’s fair to say it won’t be replacing Ode To Joy as the EU anthem any time soon.

Still, at both Wigmore and in Newbury, the churchy bent of the repertoire wasn’t my main problem. At both I paid for my ticket, turned up and heard a good performance – to the choirs’ respective standards. The problem was a certain lack of warmth. There was nothing from the stage to make me feel welcome as part of either event. At both, the musicians…the musicians just didn’t say anything at all. 

Is that weird? Because I kinda think that’s weird.

Seriously: in what other genre of music could someone conduct a concert celebrating ‘friendship’ and give no verbal greeting to the audience whatsoever? No introduction to the pieces and why they were chosen, no ‘thank you for coming’ at the end? It gave the whole evening an absurdist tinge – and yet, sadly, I wasn’t even that surprised. 

This is a tendency I’ve seen too often – to treat classical music as something self-contained, divorced from any social context, and needing only a good performance to speak for itself. It seems to assume that the audience will be clued-up and engaged enough to enjoy it without recognition being made to them as fellow human beings, investing their time and money in an evening out.

Since the Wigmore recital, I’ve been thinking about this more. At an orchestral concert, it’s nice when a conductor makes an effort to introduce the programme, but it rarely feels like such a problem when they don’t – occasionally, when one decides to test out their alternative career as a comedian, silence seems like a blessing. And at an opera, you wouldn’t want to break the fourth wall before it’s begun.

I think the question is about the scale of the space and the music. In the same way that big cities are less friendly than small villages, in a more intimate recital it feels like a greater courtesy is owed to the audience. With a capella vocal music, that natural intimacy feels greater still. And intimacy without niceties is a strangely transactional affair, one that never fully satisfies.

Of course, in the case of international touring musicians like Cinquecento there is also the issue of language. We shouldn’t assume everyone can speak English, and with confidence –  although my experience of trying to speak German in Vienna and having good English spoken back to me makes me doubt it was an issue in this particular case.

And none of this is to underestimate how terrifying public speaking can be, on top of the stresses of musical performance. I don’t suppose it’s easy for most, and there’s surely an art to doing it really well. But, as shown by the strangely penitential repertoire in Newbury, there is a value in making it clear to an audience why the particular music has been chosen, and what it means to you.

So many musicians get this right. A few hours before the Wigmore concert, I went to a lunchtime recital by a young lutenist in St. Bride’s Church. He was evidently a shy man who preferred to let his fingers do the talking. But even he managed a few mumbled words about the pieces. It got me interested in what he was about to play. It made a difference.

I think that perhaps we don’t talk enough about how antisocial classical concerts are. To sit in silence is isolating. It’s the before, after and in-between where any social aspect comes into play – assuming you’re attending with friends. And if you’re the kind of sad loser like me who goes to the Wigmore on a Friday night on his own, an indifferent presentational style is especially disappointing. However good the music is, it ends up emphasising the loneliness of the experience.

Who were these singers, in relatable human terms? What did it mean for them to be performing the Richafort Requiem, or a selection of European pieces in the run-up to Brexit? I still don’t know – they couldn’t or wouldn’t say. The saddest thing of all is what it made me ask myself, as we filed out none the wiser: why am I doing this? 

Malcolm Arnold said that music is ‘a gesture of friendship, the strongest there is’. Like many great quotes, it’s a fine sentiment with some truth to it, but it brushes aside the caveats. At both concerts, I paid for a ticket and made a journey, only to leave feeling to some extent unacknowledged. What impression would this kind of silent treatment make to somebody attending live classical music for the first time?

I’m not a performing musician, and I’ve never studied at a conservatoire. So I’d be interested to know how much, if at all, such aspects of performance practice are discussed and taught at the highest level. If you have experience of this, I’d love to hear your views. Because intimacy without niceties will always feel weird to me.

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‘Trans’ by Kaija Saariaho

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‘Orange’ by Caroline Shaw, Attacca Quartet

 

Caroline Shaw’s new album Orange, performed by Attacca Quartet, is full of surprises. 

The album cover shows an orange with leaves still attached, sitting in a beautifully composed shot on a grey background – an emoji brought to life. You almost expect to see ‘ce n’est pas une orange’ neatly painted underneath. And Magritte might well have approved of the playfulness in Shaw’s music, which revels in sudden juxtapositions and draws on surprising canonic references and reconstructions. In ‘Punctum’, a chorale tune steps in like a beautiful sad ghost. 

The condensed freedom of these pieces puts them in the realm of the chamber music ‘Phantasy’ ideal, once espoused by Walter Willson Cobbett – though even he might have baulked at Shaw’s daring.

In her notes, Shaw uses the metaphor of a ‘garden’, tended to by herself and the quartet, and writes that the album is ‘a celebration of the simple, immediate, unadorned beauty of a natural, everyday, familiar thing’. Which is lovely – I like gardens – but that might make it sound a bit zen and meditative, when this music bursts with vitality. If this is a garden, it might be one experienced through a child’s eyes – unburdened by expectations and endlessly imaginative in its responses.  

There is certainly an appealing directness and woody wholesomeness to many of Shaw’s ideas, which seem to grow from a deeply-bedded understanding of the colours of the string quartet, the grainy physicality of bowing and its sympathetic vibrations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the arcing rainbow of rich, widely spaced chords which unfold magnificently in The Beech Tree, the final movement of ‘Plan And Elevation’. 

In such moments, the zesty naturalness of the orange is an apt symbol. This is music with a bright zing that can’t be ignored. And it’s hard to imagine that the album could ever be performed by anything other than a string quartet, so surely is it crafted for its chosen tools, and so resolutely is it all executed by Attacca. 

Orange is a release that, whatever you make of it, is certainly never boring.

Listen on Youtube here, other streaming options are here.

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Miscellany – Tippett, Maier, Kuusisto, Beamish

The sun has come out in the south of England, just in time for the Easter weekend. While temperatures climb, Britain basks in the delay of its Brexit nightmare (long may it last!), and the newly-announced 2019 Proms season foretells warm musical nights to come. But Brexit’s woes have been replaced by a new focus on our climate crisis (thank you Extinction Rebellion), and if that leaves you feeling conflicted about the summery weather, you may share my mixed feelings about the Proms too. My response to the new season – in which I ask what the BBC thinks the whole thing is for – seems to have struck a chord with a few people.

A similarly hot topic in the music world right now is Michael Tippett, thanks to Oliver Soden’s new biography, published to wide acclaim and a surprising level of buzz for a book about a composer. This is reassuring, and Soden took to Twitter to thank the agent and publisher that gambled on him, when some fifty others had determined that classical music wasn’t a sell outside of its biggest names. And as it happens, I found myself at the Barbican this week to hear Tippett’s The Rose Lake performed by the BBCSO and Andrew Davis. This late work was also programmed by Rattle and the LSO last year, and certainly seems ripe for revival: a fascinating and mysterious score, it evokes the play of light on a pink-tinged body of water in Senegal. It boasts an impressive percussion section (including 36 rototoms!) and some haunting passages for unison strings. You can listen to it here.

Also new out this week is the latest Notes On Notes podcast, featuring Dr. Leah Broad and my (very much un-doctored) self. This time we discuss Amanda Maier – a highly gifted Swedish violinist and composer whose promising life was cut tragically short. Brave listeners will be treated to the sound of me reading some astonishingly sexist 19th-century reviews of her work! It’s early days on the podcast, but we’re both enjoying the experience, and any feedback is gratefully received. For our next episode, we recently went to ENO to see Jack The Ripper: The Women Of Whitechapel, so watch this space for our thoughts on it. (Even better, follow the podcast on Twitter or subscribe on iTunes).

Busy woman that she is, Leah has also been tweeting a fifty concertos thread, and it has introduced me (and various incredulous others) to this delightfully bonkers piece by Germaine Taillefaire, uploaded to YouTube from an obsolete recording. Among the other gems on that platform, there are new additions to the LSO’s Soundhub Showcase series. I particularly enjoyed Robyn Haigh’s fun ‘Aesop’, which features recorders aplenty (you may also spot a sneaky reference to a famous chorale). Meanwhile over in the Netherlands, Nachtmuziek by the Mathilde Wantenaar is an impressive new piece for strings, a single-movement ode to Béla Bartók with a real nocturnal intensity.

If you’ve ever wished you could pause an opera for a toilet break? Or to grab a bag of Mini Cheddars? If so, then OperaVision is for you! I highly recommend their video of a new Finnish opera, Ice by Jaakko Kuusisto and Juhani Koivisto. It’s a stage adaptation of a 2012 novel, in which a young Finnish pastor and his family move to a remote island community, who are connected by sea ice every winter in a temporary (and treacherous) crossing. The score is full of atmosphere and suspense, reminiscent at times of Kuusisto’s fellow Finn Rautavaara, and the story is touching, with some appealingly gothic moments featuring ethereal sea spirits. Ice is available for six months – watch it now before sea ice becomes a thing of the past. 

(On a similar theme, Stuart MacRae’s arctic chiller Anthropocene – his latest collaboration with librettist Louise Welshwill be appearing on OperaVision in May. I’m particularly looking forward to this, as I very much enjoyed their previous venture The Devil Inside.) 

Finally, for no apparent reason, I’ve been exploring Sally Beamish’s two viola concertos this week (who else can claim multiple viola concertos? There’s a question for you). But as it happens, the first has a Holy Week tie-in – it’s inspired by the denials of Peter. I am always intrigued by how composers use the viola’s middling timbre when it’s brought out from its normal supporting role – one of my first ever classical CD purchases was Telemann’s lovely viola concerto in G. But, unsurprisingly given the dramatic implications of the Biblical story, Beamish’s approach is a much more taught and angular affair. Listen to no.1 here

Wherever you are, I hope you have a Happy Easter!

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Notes on Notes: Amanda Maier

In a new podcast, I join Dr. Leah Broad to discuss the 19th-century Swedish violinist and composer Amanda Maier, whose promising life was tragically cut short. 

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Proms 2019 – what is it for?

Pity the management of the BBC Proms. It’s a festival with such an outsized role in the UK’s classical music life that it must withstand everyone’s ideas of what the art form should be doing. It has weeks and weeks of high-quality concerts, and yet it still cannot match the abundance of a musical tradition centuries in the making, and ever-growing. However well planned, no Proms season will ever do justice to every neglected composer, or respected ‘masterwork’, that the maddening mob known as British classical music fans want to hear. 

Pity the management, because as much as I love the festival, if you were going to design it from scratch, this is hardly how you’d do it. It’s held in London, when we’re all painfully aware of the city’s over-privileged status. In a hall from a long-gone era of embarrassing imperial earnestness, designed for pompous spectacle rather than acoustic quality. Its schedule is too large to pin down to any overall theme, however much the BBC try to run meaningful threads through it.

And yet, here it is: a treasure. Still a way-in for many to experience live classical music in an informal atmosphere (a few snobs excepted). Still unbelievably good value-for-money to ‘Prom’, right up close to the stage for just £6. And it does a reliable job of serving up a level of variety – with so many concerts, it would be hard not to – but it’s a balancing act. There are those who value freshness and diversity, and those who would like a pageant of familiar classics, and a whole spectrum in between.

At this year’s launch, self-described ‘Prom Queen’ Katie Derham announced that the BBC’s goal was to reach the ‘widest possible audience’ – a remark one music journalist derided as meaningless. I get a sense the BBC don’t quite know how to sell the Proms. It’s too big, too bound up in tradition, to define exactly what it’s for. One of the strangest aspects of recent years has been that the most buzz has been generated by inserted non-classical events. The Ibiza Prom, Grime Prom, a David Bowie Prom, (a tribute to the late musician notably not paid to Peter Maxwell Davies, who died two months later). These were all successful events, and I have no problem with them being part of it all, but equally, they could all have plausibly taken place elsewhere. Again the question arises: what is the Proms for?

It’s interesting to see how the BBC news website frames the new season. First of all we’re told it will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landings. Ok. Well, I’m sure that would have blown Henry Wood’s mind. We all know the BBC loves an anniversary, and this one gives us a fresh excuse for the Planets Suite to make its annual orbit through South Kensington. It provides themes for new commissions, and there’s a concert of Sci-Fi film scores – all good stuff. But commemorating an event that happened 50 years ago…is that what the Proms is for? Then look at who else features in the article, and the highlights go in heavy on names from outside the classical music world, like Nina Simone and Robert MacFarlane. This gives a strange impression for the world’s biggest classical music festival.

Of course, the BBC knows that dedicated Prommers will peruse the full programme of their own volition. So let’s look at what we’ve got. Pleasingly, the recent trend towards a full Mahler cycle every year has been reined in – his fans will have to make do with only two works this time (and the wailing of my tiny violin). Other recent traditions are continued – John Wilson doing what he does so well, the Aurora Orchestra playing another piece from memory (though all the fuss about this continues to elude me). Among the usual classics, there’s a chance to hear some rarities by Weinberg and Glazunov. I am very intrigued by Messiaen’s immense ‘Des canyons aux étoiles’.

There’s so much that’s of such reliable quality. Perhaps, a bit too reliable. Where are the events that make you think ‘wow, that’s brave’? Or ‘that could be a car crash, but also maybe amazing’? A few years ago, the performance of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony was one event that you knew was both a genuine rarity, and logistical spectacle. I’m excited by the prospect of John Luther Adams’s ‘In the Name of the Earth’ for 600 singers, which really suggests a true ‘event’ that speaks of our time.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? In an ideal classical festival, you would want new classical music to make the big headlines. Contemporary composers would loom larger than astronauts in the marketing material. We’d be told their stories, their interests, their ideas, in big letters. I accept there’s a challenge in building an audience for contemporary music, of course, but the BBC is better resourced than anyone to try and do it. 

Since the Albert Hall is at its best with large-scale works, I would love the Proms to hard-sell us big new pieces with big aims, and big risks of failure. Events that really try to ask questions of our time, rather than commemorate events 50 years ago. What risks do we have in this season? The BBC News article speaks of a ‘Will It Go Wrong Prom’. In which…the music collective Solomon’s Knot perform Bach Cantatas from memory. (Seriously though, when did this memorisation schtick become such a big deal? If I wanted Bach with the risk of mistakes I’d stay home and sight-read through the 48. You bet there’d be lots of them!)

Then, of course, there is the hot topic of diversity. The BBC trumpets that the first night is conducted by a woman for the first time – Karina Canellakis – and starts with a new commission by the Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri. Her piece is called Long Is The Journey – Short Is The Memory. And it seems a long journey is sadly what we have until the whole season looks anything like it’s fit for the 21st century. The new commissions by women are all relatively short, and so are the works by historic women. We have tone poems by Sofia Gubaidulina and Dorothy Howell, and at the longer end Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Size isn’t everything, of course, and yes, there is a concert dedicated to Barbara Strozzi in the (smaller) Cadogan Hall, while Bacewicz gets a Piano Quintet performed in the same venue. All good steps. But where are the pieces to make a big statement? To say that THESE VOICES ARE IMPORTANT? Where are the symphonies by Louise Ferranc, Florence Price, or Ruth Gipps (recently recorded by BBC NOW to great acclaim)? Where is the opera or oratorio by a woman, or composer of colour? With so many concerts to programme, why does this still need asking?

Likewise, there is little this year to show that the Proms will take up an increased role in supporting Britain’s classical music heritage, by establishing performance traditions – and crucially, listening traditions – for our many neglected composers. Nobody else is going to look after our music for us, and so many distinctive British voices continue to be ignored by the festival best placed to nurture their legacies, year after year after year.

Still, looking through the programme gave me one moment of light relief. In a move that is excruciatingly #PeakProms, a musical banquet will be laid out for Queen Victoria’s 200th birthday (admittedly I did not see this coming at all, the old girl scurried right under my radar). It will feature Victoria’s very own wince-inducing gold piano, and songs by none other than HRH Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha himself. (Nope! Neither did I!). I fear this event will reach such a critical mass of pure Promitude that it tears a hole in the fabric of the space-time continuum and swallows us all.

Not one for my diary, perhaps. But I’m not surprised that the BBC feels the need to try and please everyone. What is such an unwieldy beast as the BBC Proms for? Pity the management – their job is harder than anything NASA have ever attempted.