Hansel and Gretel next Thursday!

So next week, I’m going to see Opera Studio Oxford ‘s inaugural production, Hansel and Gretel, which I’m incredibly excited about. For one, it’s a nice little evening soiree into Oxford, a chance to catch up with some friends there, and a cultured evening – but more importantly, I’m really looking forward to supporting such a brave young company. Putting on such a large show for their first performance is a really good indicator of their ambitions in this field, and by all accounts it seems that it’s going to be amazing!

I’m not that comfortable with at opera – a lack of practical orchestral experience more than anything, I think – and I think that my main problem with it is a lack of familiarity. So this week, I’ve been researching Hansel und Gretel and having a sneaky listen to it, so that I’ll actually know what I’m talking about when I say it’s amazing, as I’m sure it will be! Timothy Anderson, the Musical Director (and friend of mine!), has been kind enough to write up his own thoughts about the fundamental German-ness of this opera, and one sentence stuck out in particular:

“It’s undoubtedly quintessentially German, but is totally comprehensible to all in a way that very few operas are.”

Excellent. This sounds like my type of opera. I researched the plot a little bit so I have some idea what’s going on – despite it being in English, I’m allergic to vibrato and can’t comprehend anything that oscillates even slightly. The difference in plot between the opera and the traditional fairy tale is quite startling: the mother and father are painted quite differently!

The music also sounds really interesting. I don’t know much Humperdinck but a cursory wikipedia-ing reveals that he was one of the first components of Sprechgesang (speak-singing) which I think is quite interesting, even if there isn’t any in Hansel and Gretel. Also, what are the chances of two musicians being called Englebert Humperdinck? You’d be surprised!

This is an adorable 1929 recording of 250 children singing an extract from the opera with the Halle Orchestra:

Aren’t they adorable? It reminds me a lot of April Shower from Bambi, which was recorded 20ish years later and released in 1942. I actually think the sound quality is better on the Hansel and Gretel recording. Odd!

Tim managed to source an orchestra of musicians from the London conservatoires, and a couple of my friends are playing in it: I’ll be interested to see the ensemble and to quiz both the MD and the players about whether they were comfortable with the number of rehearsals they’d had. I’m quite interested in the logistics of this production and to see just how easy (or hard!) it was to stage such a large-scale work. I know that a lot of work has gone into this production – I think they’ve been planning it since last September or something crazy like that! – and it’s simultaneously exciting and quite nerve-wracking to see the final product. And I’m not even involved in it!

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Visual Inspiration

Although I’m a musician, and generally quite creatively minded, I have next to no visual skills. I can put things in order, but I can’t make them look attractive or stylish, they just look…organised. And usually they aren’t even in order, just in an order that makes sense to me. To use a quick example: my bookcase. Did you know there are people whose jobs are literally to style bookcases? Yeah. Seriously. 

Ideally, my books would look something like the image on the right. Unfortunately, they actually look like the image below:

This isn’t ideal. The problem is partly that I have too many books and not enough shelf space – that’s only two shelves out of eight! – but also because I haven’t figured out a good system yet. At the moment they’re roughly alphabetised – ie, all the As are together, next to all the Bs, as this means that I can return a book to roughly the right place without having the mental gymnastics of working out whether Grisham comes before Grace etc etc. But as you can see, it’s pretty messy. I hate double stacking and horizontal stacking but I don’t really have a choice. And wheras in the bookcase above, all the little objects seem to be meaningfully placed, mine just look a bit random. Sigh.

But now to the actual point of this post: despite not being visually orientated at all in terms of output, I think I’m really sensitive to visual stimulation, as it were. In other words, I’m really inspired by imagery and I find it quite easy to imagine inspiring imagery to music, for example, despite not being able to actually recreate this in reality. I keep a tumblr of images I find inspiring / beautiful, and you can tell from my room on the right that I really enjoy being surrounded by these beautiful images.

This here is a video showing a 3D visualisation of a short clip of music – something I find really fascinating. I really enjoy how the ambience is depicted right at the beginning.

This is a different, more literal way of visualising music, which strikes me as a bit arbitrary. You could just read notes, I think.

My favourite is this video: I think it strikes a really good balance between visualising literally and more musically, as it were: you can see the velocities of the different notes and it’s really interesting seeing how all the parts interact. I think of this as sort of an interactive mini-score, with the added benefit of playback and pretty colours. This probably isn’t the most artistic, but definitely the most useful.

Anyway: I’m hoping to interview a few synaesthetic friends and also talk about my own experience of synaesthesia in a later post. This is a subject I find really interesting and possibly something I’d want to explore more indepth in future, even if it’s a bit technology-heavy and classical-bass light! Also coming up is a post about the compositional process of She’s So Old, from Colton’s Big Night. See you soon!

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To do, or not to do…

Blog post: Special Work Edition! It’s a Sunday at 4pm, the weather is absolutely disgusting, and I have too many things to do before tomorrow. I’m hoping that writing them all down here will lead to actually achieving them out of fear of shame…Also some of them are quite fun projects!

1. Create a header and design a layout for Beckii’s new blog. (Work in progress here)

2. Catch up on all the harmony work I’ve missed this term. (Whoops…)

3. Listen to different versions of the Rossini double bass / cello duet in preparation for my Chamber assessment on Tuesday. (totally not panicking. at all. not even a little bit.)

4. Sort out my tickets and start writing up short reviews of each concert. At the moment, they look like this, and it’s not good. Also sort out my intray. It’s SO TALL. 

 

5. Finish transcribing Arco / Pizz. It’s one of my favourite pieces by Project Trio and I think, really manageable as an introduction to the sort of style they play in, which is the kind of style I’d love to explore. Hoping to get a group together to play through this next week! Also, I love the musicality of this performance, and how excited they look to play. It’s lovely to watch :)

6. Finger up some double bass studies so I don’t look like a dick in my lesson tomorrow.

7. Do the Ornamentation homework!!

8. Read a book. I miss it. :(

9. Write my assignment from the head of study. (Scary.)

10. Soup for dinner :)

11. Prepare Thursday’s Spring Awakening rehearsal.

12. Start drafting my write up of Colton’s Big Night.

13. Write out the band parts for She’s So Old!

14. Email back singers, send out successful applicant pack.

15. Start thinking about orchestrations for Joe Eason‘s new album. (spoiler alert: it’s gorgeous)

16. Reply to email about Dido and Aeneas.

17. Finish Stravinsky pitch, compile a list of schools and send it off for appraisal. Eeee.

18. Start packing up my room. (Exciting update to follow)

 

I’m sure there’s more, but I’ve lost my To Do book, which means I literally have no idea what I’m doing. :( Seriously bad times. Let’s see if I can achieve this all….tonight….. (I really don’t think it’s going to happen.

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Tuesday Fun

Shape of Sting’s Heart – project with looping electric cello. Just wait till he gets into the rhythmic bit, it’s amazing. It reminds me of Zoe Keating, but because it’s an electric cello, there’s so much more scope, pitch-wise. Zoe Keating sounds like a cello orchestra – this is, I think, more accessible due to it sounding a bit more modern! It’s interesting looking at his bow-hold too – he has a really constant point of contact. Unsurprising since a bit of sneaky research shows that he studied at the Liszt institute. Another wonder of modern technology: I can be his friend on Facebook. Also, this is possibly the best profile picture of a cellist I have ever seen. Thanks, Mihaly. I have been truly entertained.

The youtube trail then leads here, with Mihaly in a trio, performing Moves Like Jagger.

Yeah, I know. Whattttt. I don’t think I like this as much – electric violin sounds pretty scratchy and although it’s a stylistic choice, I can’t get over it. This feels a lot more European than cool, as it were.

Anyway. Moving on. Here’s a really cool article about prepared piano and Nils Frahm, who’s a generally awesome guy who writes beautiful piano music. I discovered him via Olafur Arnalds, who wrote this amazing piece (in a day!) that moves from beautiful solo piano, to moving strings, to….electronica? Has to be heard to be believed. 


My research project of the week is this dissertation, entitled ‘Converting Images To Music Using Their Colour Properties’. It’s all going a bit over my head but there are some really cool ideas.

Margaret Atwood is writing an online novel with Naomi Alderman and it’s about zombies and it’s amazing. That is all.

Classical Brits exposed as a sickening crime against classical music. This article title sort of speaks for itself.

And finally, something a little more lighthearted: cat-bounce. This has saved my sanity so much this week.

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La Boheme at the WNO: Vibrato, Snow, Mirrors, Oh My

Opera is not a genre I’m keen on. This is for many reasons. As the name ‘reasons’ suggests, they’re quite reasonable reasons. Or at least, I think so. Firstly:

1. They’re usually not in English. I don’t like this. Opera is often quite complicated and I don’t like having to decipher what’s going on, especially when there’s complicated gender politics involved. I’ve been nastily surprised before when the lead male has turned out to be a lead female and vice versa. “Read the programme notes!” I hear you cry. I just personally dislike having to follow along a performance with something that’s written down. If I wanted to do that, I’d bring the score. I’ve noticed a lot of snobbery involving having a live translation up on a screen and I really don’t understand why. It makes opera so much more accessible and surely that should be a goal with music in general these days. Jus’ sayin’.

2. I don’t like vibrato in singers. I don’t mean like, note-warming. I like that. That’s fine. But when diction is compromised, I really can’t stand it. I mean, it’s usually in a foreign language anyway. Give me a chance. Please.

3. That’s about it.

4. Shit. So much for ‘loads of reasons’.

So when I took my great-aunt to see La Boheme at the WNO, I wasn’t quite sure what I was letting myself in for. It should be pointed out that my great-aunt is almost completely blind and in complete denial about the fact, so taking her anywhere is somewhat of a trial. Also, if she knows a tune, she will sing along, which is fine when we take her to Church but not so much during concerts and operas. As I discovered.

The staging itself is absolutely gorgeous. There are three mirrors on each side that act as the sides of the stage and are completely movable, allowing actors to exit and entrance.  The stage itself was kind of shabby-chic Paris with a good deal of grime and paint chucked on for good measure. I felt like some of the details would have been lost had I been sitting further back – I was lucky enough to get seats on row B, which is about as close as you can get to the singers without actually smelling them.

Also, this deserves a seperate paragraph: THEY HAD A SNOW MACHINE. A machine. That makes snow. A completely silent snow machine. If you have any idea how hard that is to achieve, you’re probably a theatre technician and know your shit, because seriously, it’s practically impossible without massive expense or an act of God.

The orchestra, were of course, phenomenal, although their sound sometimes drowned out the singers. I couldn’t tell if the singers were miked or not but I suspect not. It was hard to judge, being so close. (FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS.) The music is wonderful, although usually I’m not a massive fan of Puccini. There were lots of little phrases that my aunt sang along to – sometimes in Italian, sometimes in English, sometimes in Welsh – that appear to be famous, such as something about cold hands. Also, MIIMIIIII!!!! 

I must admit. That link makes me giggle. His poor little face. My criticism of the opera itself is that the ending seems a little rushed. I mean, the whole opera is one massive love story and then BOOM, SHE DEAD, CURTAIN DROPS. I was expecting at least an aria at the end about how empty life is without Mimi, how all the flowers are wilted and dead, etc etc, but instead it felt a bit…hollow. Especially considering how long the bitch took to die. Literally a whole opera. (Sorry if I’ve spoilt it for you.)

Anyway, in conclusion, I don’t really know enough about opera to give a detailed, indepth critique about this performance. But to the average, uninformed watcher, it was a wonderful spectacle – both visual and aural- and didn’t feel overly long or overly complex, like a lot of operas I could think of. I have to admit that a lot of my understanding came from RENT. I’m not sure what kind of musician this makes me. Probably a shit one. Anyway. Four arbitary stars. Well done, WNO. Well done you.

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Dragonetti Days #1 – Dolls, Drama, Homosensuality

dom dragSo this handsome motherfucker is Domenico Dragonetti, who’s a general badass and current subject of fevered research in preparation for a performance class tomorrow. To say I’m panicking is a slight understatement. The problem with Dragonetti is that he’s fundamentally not Bach, but is viewed as somewhat of a Bach-substitute in the realm of unaccompanied repertoire. however, Dragonetti was born after Bach died, so the relevance of the copious amount of literature on informed Bach performance is slightly doubtful. And unfortunately, there aren’t many books about how to perform Dragonetti works that I’ve come across. Possibly because nobody cares, except for me. Possibly. On a good day.

My research efforts have got a little ridiculous this week – I ended up ordering a book from the British Library this week (‘Domenico Dragonetti in England 1794-1846’ if you cared, but you probably don’t) and also emailed the BBC a begging email asking for a copy of a radio programme about Dragonetti’s influence on Beethoven. In response, I received two automatic emails – one from a man called Graham Ireland saying that he was out of the office until July 2nd 2012, and another with a list of people to contact and a link to a FAQ page that didn’t work. Slow clap, BBC. Today, you have disappointed me. I do wonder what happened to Graham Ireland, though. Is nobody worried about this?

I did, however, find out some interesting things. According to the Grove article on Dragonetti, he was ‘a passionate collector of instruments, music, paintings, snuffboxes, and dolls’. MULTIPLE ALARM BELLS. Instruments and music – fair enough. Completely relevant to being a virtuoso double bassist. Paintings? Eh, it’s relevant to being a general arty person. But snuffboxes? Dolls?

The plot thickens. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment refers to a popular story about Dragonetti introducing one of these dolls as ‘his wife’ (!), a story that is generally refuted. However, looking at ‘Domenico Dragonetti in England 1794-1846’, it appears there may have been some truth in this. (also, Haydn also collected dolls. WHO KNEW) The Royal College of Music actually have one of Dragonetti’s dolls – a black, baby-sized female doll, apparently. General consensus seems to be that the only first-hand source we have was written by a man called Phillips, but as his writing was written to be enjoyed and to entertain, it’s likely that he exaggerated the more artistic and eccentric parts of Dragonetti’s personality. Henceforth, these elements have been exaggerated even further for sake of hilarity, which is definitely a cause i believe in, but perhaps not to the detriment of Dragonetti’s otherwise sterling reputation. (ish.) The author, Palmer, points out that if he really was as incredibly eccentic as reported, he probably wouldn’t have been as level-headed with his finances, leading to great financial stability in London. I’m not quite sure I agree. Studying at music college, I’ve met a lot of people who are very selectively insane about certain things, but are perfectly normal in all other areas. I prefer to think of it as ‘hyperfocus’ rather than ‘obsession’, but who am I to judge. I collect spoons.

But gasp! Even MORE drama. Francesco Caffi, in his (if the title is anything to go by) extremely wordy book ‘Storia Della Musica Sacra Nella Gia’ Cappella Ducale Di San Marco in Venezia Dal 1318 Al 1797‘ threw up a few questions surrounding the authenticity of his compositions. He described Dragonetti as an astonishing performer, but apparently his written skills weren’t fantastic, and that his arrangements could be proven to have been assisted by other Venetian maestri. GASP.

It should be mentioned that in the same book, Caffi describes Dragonetti very favourably, especially his left hand technique. It all gets a bit homosensual at one point, with Caffi saying ‘his fingers were so long, so thick, and so supple that all five, even the bent thumb, could glide over the great fingerboard to create the notes’. All right, Caffi. Simmer down.

Next time I’ll go into more detail about things that are actually relevant to musicians. Like his music, for example. Oh, snap.

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Concert Review: Musical Soup

What do Vaughan-Williams, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky all have in common? Well, two things. Firstly, they all wrote vaguely interesting bass parts. And secondly, if played incorrectly, their pieces can sound like the musical equivalent of leek and potato soup. Take a minute. Think about it. Yeah. Soup. I recently watched the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra at St David’s Hall play a concert of some of my favourite works, like, ever – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Vaughan-Williams, Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s First Violin Concerto. I should have known this would end in disaster and disappointment, but actually, it wasn’t too bad. I should disclose now that the cello part of Rachmaninov’s second symphony is possibly my favourite cello part in existence (and I mean in existence, I’m comparing it to concertos and everything) so the fact that I couldn’t actually hear it was a little disappointing. But I’m jumping ahead.

My first impressions were that the string section used for the Vaughan Williams was absolutely massive. And then my next impression was confusion – they had seated a load of seemingly random players at the back, away from their respective sections. It became quickly apparent that these players were part of the solo string section that Vaughan-Williams scored for, but then I was even more confused because I thought that common practise was a) to use section principles who are b) usually at the front of the orchestra. Perhaps it was to do with projection – admittedly, there were some lovely moments where the orchestra faded away to the solo section, which projected from the back of the stage, leading to a feeling of real distance. When they played, they were mostly unmuted but because of the physical distance between listener and player, they sounded almost otherworldly. This effect, I feel, would have been lost, had they been at the front. Despite this, it did look a bit odd. I made a few general observations about the bass section too – most were standing, but had stools and chairs behind them! Very odd. At the beginning of the concert, the basses were resting with their scrolls on the chairs, which looked very, very, unsafe. I did a bit of sympathetic hyperventilation before I got shushed by the people behind me. (Pricks.) Also, there were no girl-bassists. This made me sad. They all used German hold. This also made me sad. However, what made me happy was googling Vaughan-Williams and discovering that he looks hilarious. Look at his adorable rectangular face. Nawww.

Another strange thing about the Vaughan-Williams was that it was easily the loudest number in the programme, despite being only strings. The Tchaikovksy concerto is scored for a reduced orchestra (I think, there aren’t any trombones) but nevertheless, the string section remained roughly the same size. Huge. Despite this, they weren’t very loud – I don’t know whether this was an issue of projection, or to do with where I was sitting, or simply because years of playing in front of the percussion section has damaged my hearing, but I was backed up on this by a number of audience members during the interval, so at least I know it wasn’t just me. The soloist was Alexander Sitkovetsky, who practically sweated out charisma and confidence. Actually, I don’t know if he was sweating. He seemed pretty confident. He swaggered onto the stage in a very respectful, calm manner, waited until the orchestra had finished the opening of the concerto, and then blasted out a beautiful, clear interpretation. I was a fan. And not only because I googled him afterwards and he’s pretty beautiful. My only criticism of his performance would be his choice of cadenza. I don’t know which cadenza it was, but it was either very atonal or very out of tune, and either way it felt incongruous with the rest of his performance. He used wacky things like false harmonics and odd, odd chords. I’m not well-versed in the alternative cadenzas for this concerto so I can’t really comment further, but it’s worth mentioning. The orchestral balance was also disappointing – the brass absolutely drowned out the strings at pivotal moments. My final criticism is of the audience – they clapped after the first movement! I’m not sure how I feel about this as I’ve read differing accounts of how not clapping is extremely classist and snobbish, but I do think that it somewhat interrupts the musical atmosphere to have sudden unwanted mass audience participation in the percussion section. That’s just me, though. Reading this through, it seems that my three criticisms are of the soloist, the orchestra, and the audience. How very fair of me.

 Rachmaninov generally has a very odd effect on me. Upon hearing the opening of any of his works, I start making faces like Eugene Ormandy (on the left). Especially with his second symphony, which I’ve realised over the past few years is horrifically overplayed, but this doesn’t detract from its beauty or resonance. There were a few orchestral decisions that didn’t make sense to me – the choice of french horn mute, for example, which sounded quite incongruous as it was a very harsh sound in an otherwise smooth texture and soundworld. In other, slightly less diplomatic terms, it sounded like a dying frog. A more musical choice was the excessive use of portamento, especially in the first violin section. I reasoned that this might be a Russian stylistic choice, culturally, but it did sometimes feel a little out of place. The conductor had a very elastic sense of time (despite outstanding control) which meant that the rubatos were true rubatos in the sense of really ‘stealing time’. It was particularly apparent during the principal theme of the first movement, which changed so much in tempo over only a few bars that I almost felt seasick. But in a good way. My only major criticism was that I literally couldn’t hear the cellos. To be fair, there were nine cellos competing with eight basses, which seems like a very strange balancing choice, but I couldn’t hear the basses much either. Perhaps because they were on tour, they weren’t putting much welly into it, but I was a bit disappointed.
Something I found quite interesting is that later this month, in Bradford, the orchestra are doing a similar concert, but with a different conductor. The concert I saw was conducted by Alexander Dmitriev, who is either a Russian accordion player or conductor of the St Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra. Are they different from the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra? Who the fuck did I see last week?! I think it’s most likely that they dropped the ‘Academic’ when on tour, since Vladimir Altschuler, who’s conducting the concert in Bradford, also appears on the St Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra website. I think it would be an interesting experiment to listen to the Bradford concert and compare it to the Cardiff concert, to see the difference the conductor had on the interpretation of the work. Especially with the violin concerto, to see the relative input of orchestra, soloist, and conductor.
Something slightly amusing that happened was the Mysterious Invisible Harpist. During the entire concert, a harp was on stage, but alas! No harpist. Also, alas! No harp parts. Its presence seemed entirely superfluous and quite confusing. We were even more confused when she appeared at the end to take a bow, despite not having been on stage yet. We were even more confused when she didn’t play in the first encore – Rachmaninov’s Vocalise – but slightly placated when she played during the second – I don’t know what it was, I was too busy watching the harpist. The encores felt a little gratuitous, especially the second, but this may have been because I really, really needed a drink and my left leg had gone to sleep, so I was slightly anxious to leave. The depressing thing is that the harpist probably got paid a load in porterage fees and performance fees, but I’m slightly placated to learn that the orchestra are playing alternative repertoire in different concerts this tour that might feature her more. Otherwise she’d have lugged her harp all the way over from Russia to play for two minutes per concert, which hardly seems fair, or economical. But since when was classical music fair or economical?
In conclusion, this concert was lovely but I wasn’t blown away. I didn’t want to be deafened, but I didn’t enjoy having to strain to hear the different harmonies. Three arbitrary stars for you, St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra.
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