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  • Six of the best pieces by John Adams

    classical-music.com | Mon, 12 Nov 2018 10:00:00 +0000

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    Often described as the US’s unofficial composer laureate, John Adams has become one of the most sought-after musicians of the 21st century, carving out a distinctive and often politically charged niche in the contemporary repertoire.

    Adams was raised on a mixed diet of jazz, rock ’n’ roll and classical music in his New Hampshire childhood home, and the impetus placed on musical impartiality by his saxophonist father is evident in the broad range of influences that inform his work.

    On being awarded a scholarship to Harvard University in the late 1960s, Adams at first intended to focus on his instrument – the clarinet – and conducting. And indeed, it wasn’t until after he graduated and moved to San Francisco, turning his back on fellow students’ idolatry of serialists like Webern and Boulez, that he began to approach composition seriously.

     

     

    In 1972 he took up a post at the San Francisco Conservatory, organising concerts of ‘experimental’ music by composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman. However, his own musical style took inspiration from jazz and the ‘pure’ minimalism of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. With a flock of students at his disposal – what he described as a ‘working laboratory’ – Adams had a ready-made platform from which to develop this style.

    Here’s a quick look at what we think are the six best works he’s come up with since…

     

     

    1. Shaker Loops (1978)

    Shaker Loops for string septet was written using fragments of an earlier string quartet Wavemaker, which, according to Adams himself, was poorly conceived and had a disastrous first performance

    In this, his second attempt at presenting the material, he employs the same principles of repetition ­­– or ‘loops’ – that pervade the music of Riley and Reich. However, expressive melodies and a strong narrative arc set the work apart from its minimalistic counterparts.

    Its hugely successful premiere propelled Adams into the international limelight.

    Recommended recording: Marin Alsop/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on Naxos.

     

     

     

    2. Harmonium (1980-81)

    Written for SATB chorus and orchestra, Harmonium was composed in a small studio on the third floor of Adams’s Haight-Ashbury townhouse. While searching for inspiration, the composer (in his own words) ‘cast far and wide for a text to satisfy a musical image … one of human voices – many of them – riding upon waves of rippling sound’.

    In the end he based the piece on three poems: ‘Negative Love’ by John Donne and Emily Dickinson’s ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ and ‘Wild Nights’. These poems define the three movements of the work, which has become one of his most well-known.

    Recommended recording: Edo de Waart/San Francisco Symphony and Chorus on ECM New Series

     

     

     

    3. Nixon in China (1987)

    With its highly political subject matter and bold mix of contemporary and old fashioned operatic traditions, Adam’s first foray into stage music became an overnight sensation.

    The opera is based upon the historic meeting of Richard Nixon and Chinese chairman Mao Tse-Tung in Beijjing, 1972 – the first time a US president had visited the People’s Republic of China. Being set just 15 years before it was written, Nixon in China was unique in that many of the characters portrayed could have attended the Houston premiere.

    Recommended recording: Edo de Waart/The Chorus and Orchestra of St Lukes on Nonesuch.

     

     

     

    4. Naïve and Sentimental Music (1999)

    Written in three movements, this orchestral work is an exploration of the two types of creative personality described by Friedrich Schiller in his essay On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry.

    The first is the ‘naïve’ artist, who creates for the sake of creation, as opposed to the ‘sentimental’ artist who is aware of the historical and political significance of their work. Adams writes, ‘This particular piece, perhaps more than any of my others, attempts to allow the naïve in me to speak, to let it play freely’.

    Recommended recording: Peter Oundjian/Sean Shibe and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos

     

     

     

    5. Dharma at Big Sur (2003)

    Adams harnesses the ethereal sound of the electric violin in this work composed for the opening of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. In it he depicts the ‘shock of recognition’ one gets when reaching the end of the continental land mass at the California coast.

    The first draft required the orchestra and soloist to play in ‘just intonation’, where the intervals between notes are tuned differently to a conventional scale. He spent weeks in his studio retuning synthesizers and samplers to create the desired effect, which to his disappointment was too difficult for the orchestra to recreate when he finally brought them the score.

    Still, even without, the music is undeniably beautiful.

    Recommended recording: John Adams/Tracy Silverman and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Nonesuch

     

     

     

    6. The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2014)

    This oratorio is one of Adams’s more recent compositions. A rare choice in its religious subject matter, the work focuses on the last weeks of Jesus’s life from the point of view of Mary Magdeline, her sister Martha and brother Lazarus.

    The libretto is compiled by Peter Sellers from Biblical sources, as well as original texts by the likes of Dorothy Day and Primo Levi.

    A finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music, The Gospel According to the Other Mary was received with critical acclaim, and confirmed Adams’s place in the composer hall of fame.

    Recommended recording: Gustavo Dudamel/The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale on DG

     

     

     

    Listen to our Best of John Adams playlist on Spotify

  • What was the impact of World War One on music?

    classical-music.com | Thu, 08 Nov 2018 16:00:00 +0000

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    As with all other walks of life, the First World War took its terrible toll on classical music, with many composers and performers dying in battle or left irrevocably scarred. Some pieces of music were written especially for the cause, while others were the result of despair at the tragedy of it all.

    Ultimately though, the First World War changed the very course of music history and gave rise to some incredible pieces that may have otherwise not existed. Here are the main impacts that the First World War had on music.

     

    New pieces were composed for the war effort

    Numerous composers were inspired to wield their pens for the cause. Although he was ambivalent about the war, Edward Elgar wrote his Carillon for voice and orchestra in support of Belgian resistance in December 1914 and this was soon followed by Polonia, composed for a Polish Victims’ Relief Fund Concert in the Queen’s Hall in London.

    Max Reger also wasn’t generally inclined to share many of his colleagues’ enthusiasm for patriotic tub-thumping, but he greeted the beginning of the War with his 15-minute Eine Vaterländische Overtüre (A Patriotic Overture), dedicated it to the German army.

    Other composers, including Ruggero Leoncavallo, Valentin Valentinov and Maurice Ravel all rallied to the cause with their music, the latter completing his patriotic Piano Trio just in time to take himself off to war.

     

     

    Composers were lost

    British composer George Butterworth was shot at the Somme in 1916 and he left behind only a small handful of works that gave a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. Another talented composer who only left a small number of works was the German Rudi Stephan, who was killed by a Russian sniper at Tarnopol in Ukraine.

    Scottish composer Cecil Coles was still writing music while he served on the Western Front and he sent manuscripts of works such as his orchestral suite Behind the Lines back to his friend Gustav Holst before being killed.

    Other composers lost to the conflict were the Hungarian Aládar Rádo, Belgian André Devaere, British composers William Denis Browne and Ernest Farrar, Willie B Manson and Frederick Kelly who were both killed in the Somme, and the French composer Fernand Halphen.

     

     

    Music was written in response to the tragedy war

    The appalling human tragedy of World War One left its indelible mark on a generation of British composers. Some died on the field of battle, while those who survived were deeply affected either by what they had seen or the loss of friends, colleagues and family.

    Whatever their stylistic differences, works such as Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral  Symphony, Holst’s The Planets, Bliss’s early Piano Quartet (composed during the Battle of the Somme), Gurney’s War Elegy and Bridge’s Oration all bear the scars of human conflict.

     

     

    Technology changed everything

    New technologies, particularly the motor car, the telegraph and the advent of recording had a huge impact on music. The War itself involved new technologies such as tanks and submarines, and above all huge pieces of artillery used by both sides.

    The new battlefield became a kind of modernist symphony, vividly described by Cecil Barber in the Musical Times, who spent time on the Western Front. ‘The various timbres stand out clearly,’ he wrote. ‘The melancholy passage of great shells, the whizz and bang of smaller ones, the long swishing strides of the gas shells… and the constant spurt of sniper’s fire, molto staccato, in stupendous counterpoint.' One hears that sound echoed in the monstrous percussion of Holst’s ‘Mars’ from The Planets, composed between 1914 and '16.

    And everywhere one finds march rhythms, strangely or threateningly distorted, in pieces such as the first of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet and the third of Alban Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces. (Ivan Hewitt)

     

     

    It facilitated the rise of jazz

    In one of the prophetic coincidences of 20th-century history, the first jazz records were released in New York in March, 1917, just a month before the US entered World War One. Though it would be silly to maintain that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s raucous creation of ‘Livery Stable Blues’ and ‘Original Dixieland One-Step’ was comparable to thousands of American soldiers throwing themselves into the European fray, both events signalled New World energy surging into Old World culture, a wave of modernity that would transform everything in its path.

    In fact, Europe had already had a taste of the novel pleasures of American music with the pre-war vogue for ragtime: its catchy syncopation had appealed to ballroom dancers and the likes of Debussy and Stravinsky, who wrote ragtime compositions. But jazz was different, more visceral and raffish, hinting at the prurient origins of the word itself.

    The normal, respectable sound of brass instruments took on a new character – pungent and intoxicating – when played by the bands accompanying the US Army’s black regiments, such as the ‘Hellfighters’ and the ‘Seventy Black Devils’. (Geoffrey Smith)

     

     

    The role of women changed (eventually)

    For all its horrors, the First World War gave women unprecedented opportunity to prove they could do what was then seen as men’s work – an important catalyst for some women getting the vote in 1918.

    In classical music, though, this doesn’t seem to have been a watershed moment. In 1912 it was, recalls violist and composer Rebecca Clarke, ‘considered very, very strange to have women in a symphony orchestra.’ It was the same after the War. The Hallé’s records show that eight women were admitted in 1916, but by 1920 it was back to being an all-male orchestra until 1941.

    Over in the capital, the LSO carried on playing until 1917, when concerts were put on hold until the end of the War. Thirty of its members were in active service, but apart from two female harpists, no other women were employed.

    Clarke had been recruited by Henry Wood in 1912 as one of six women to join his Queen’s Hall Orchestra – possibly the first time women had been employed by a professional orchestra – but it wasn’t until many years later that the make-up of orchestras really began to change. (Rebecca Franks)

     

     

    Composers left behind invaluable letters

    As with their literary counterparts, a number of composers who went to fight in the First World War wrote often and at length about their experiences.

    George Butterworth wrote lengthy letters home, recording the boredom that was a major feature of life in rest behind the trenches: ‘There is nothing to do here – no places to go, the most frightfully dull country imaginable, and any amount of rain’. Tellingly, he never mentioned the honours he was receiving for bravery in his letters, nor does he mention music; it was as if he had entirely put that chapter of his life to one side, in favour of his new, military identity.

    Most prolific of the composer correspondents was Ivor Gurney, who wrote practically every day during the war, to fellow composer Herbert Howells (‘Dear Howler’, he would begin), and to other friends from the Royal College. His letters are a brave mixture of humour and deep affection for the other soldiers. (Kate Kennedy)

     

     

    Listen to our Music of Remembrance playlist here:

  • The best classical music for Remembrance Sunday

    classical-music.com | Thu, 08 Nov 2018 09:00:00 +0000

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    On 11 November 1919, King George V presided over the inaugural Remembrance Day, a year after the end of World War I. That initial ceremony of remembrance centred on a two-minute silence at 11am.

    ‘The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect,’ reported The Manchester Guardian that day. ‘The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume… and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.’

    Silence remains an important part of today’s Remembrance Day, marked by the lengthy musical programme of the day, which has remained unchanged since 1930. From Elgar’s evocative Nimrod, to our National Anthem, we present a guide to the music of remembrance. 

     

    Rule, Britannia! - Thomas Arne

    One of the fixtures of the Last Night of the Proms, Rule, Britannia! is also performed at the Remembrance Day service. First heard in 1745, Thomas Arne’s patriotic piece sprang from the era of empire and naval might.

    The Britannia of James Thomson and David Mallett’s poem originally referred to the Roman name for England and Wales. With its rousing chorus, it has remained popular and has popped in music by Beethoven, Wagner and Sullivan.

     

     

    Heart of Oak - William Boyce

    ‘Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men,’ begins the refrain of William Boyce’s Heart of Oak, the official march of the UK Royal Navy. With music by Boyce (not Arne, as once thought), its text is by David Garrick, one of the renowned British actors of the 18th century.

    It’s a jaunty, uplifting number, written in 1759 for Garrick’s pantomime Harlequin’s Invasion celebrating British victories against the French.

     

     

    The Minstrel Boy - Thomas Moore

    Poet Thomas Moore wrote this song in remembrance of his friends who fought and were killed in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Set to the melody of an old Irish air called The Moreen, The Minstrel Boy became a popular song among the Irish soldiers who fought in the American Civil War and, later, World War I.

     

     

    Men of Harlech 

    Traditionally attributed to the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle in the 1460s – the longest in British history – Men of Harlech remains a patriotic Welsh anthem. The rousing tune is often played at memorial services of British Army regiments associated with Wales.

    It’s used as a slow march by the Welsh Guards and is taken at a quicker tempo by the Royal Regiment of Wales

     

     

    Skye Boat Song

    A slightly unlikely choice for the Remembrance Day ceremony, given that the figure whom it celebrates was once public enemy number one (if, that is, you were English and Protestant…).

    The words, which were written by Sir Harold Boulton in the 1880s, tell of the escape of Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) to the island of Skye after the failure of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745. The tune, meanwhile, is an old Scottish air.

     

     

    Isle of Beauty - Thomas Haynes Bayly

    This song, by English poet Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839), is often credited with being the source for the now common expression: ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ a line which appears mid-way through the song. 

     

     

    Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock) - David Owen

    Legend has it that the composer David Owen wrote this haunting song while on his deathbed, at the age of just 29. The words are autobiographical, telling the tale of the dying composer from White Rock (the name of the farm where Owen lived).

    In 1923 Dafydd y Garreg Wen became the first ever Welsh language song to be played on the BBC.

     

     

    Oft in the Stilly Night - John Andrew Stevenson

    A former chorister of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin and vicar-choral of St Patrick’s, Irish composer Sir John Andrew Stevenson (1761-1833) wrote a considerable amount of choral music, songs, glees and catches.

    He also published dozens of ‘symphonies and accompaniments’ to poet Thomas Moore’s collection of Irish melodies, of which his simple and affecting piano accompaniment to ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ is but one.

     

     

    Flowers of the Forest - Traditional

    This Scottish folk tune commemorates the defeat of James IV’s army at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. The original words are lost, but the melody was recorded in 1615. Today, the most commonly used words are those by Jean Eliot (b1727), who originally published her text anonymously.

    Her poem was believed to be the original, but Robert Burns and others suspected it was an imitation and tracked down the author along with Sir Walter Scott and Allan Ramsey. Many pipers today refuse to perform this song except at funerals and memorial services, due to the reverence in which it is held.

     

     

    Nimrod - Edward Elgar

    The most famous of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, written in 1899, ‘Nimrod’ is a musical depiction of the composer’s friend Augustus Jaeger. ‘Jaeger’ in German means ‘Hunter’, and Nimrod in the Bible is described as ‘the mighty hunter’ – hence the name.

    Jaeger, who worked for the music publisher Novello, was a close friend of Elgar’s and a constant source of encouragement and kind words. The warmth of their friendship is reflected in this calm, reflective variation in E flat major, which (intentionally) also has a hint of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata to it.

     

     

    Dido’s Lament - Henry Purcell

    While the ‘Skye Boat Song’ (see earlier) celebrates the swift journey of a boat towards its destination, Dido’s Lament is a heartbroken response to the sight of a ship disappearing away over the horizon.

    The ship in question belongs to Aeneas who, after a brief fling with Dido in Carthage, is reminded to pursue his destiny and head on his way. She, left behind and utterly grief stricken, avows to kill herself. Heard at the end of 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas, the Lament, whose words begin ‘When I am laid in earth’ is arguably the most famous, and sublime, music Purcell ever wrote.

     

     

    Solemn Melody - Sir Henry Walford Davies

    Best known for the hymn tune ‘God be in my head’, composer, lecturer and educator Sir Henry Walford studied composition with both Parry and Stanford at the Royal College of Music and was organist at London’s Temple Church for 21 years.

    String quartets, a couple of cantatas and a 74-minute oratorio are among works now largely forgotten, although his touching Solemn Melody, scored originally for organ and strings, has endured.

    He was made Master of the King’s Musick after Elgar’s death in 1934, by which time he was well-known as the presenter of the popular radio series ‘Music and the Ordinary Listener’, first aired in 1926.

     

     

    O Valiant Hearts - Charles Harris

    Charles Harris (1865-1936) earned a doctorate from Oxford and served as vicar of Colwall, a small town in Herefordshire. His only lasting contribution to music was the rousing hymn tune ‘The Supreme Sacrifice’, setting the words ‘O Valiant Hearts’ by poet Sir John Stanhope Arkwright.

    The tune’s name is taken from the book The Supreme Sacrifice and other Poems in Time of War which features Arkwright’s verse.

     

     

    The Last Post

    One of the most universally recognisable tunes of Remembrance Day is The Last Post, a bugle call played at services across the UK and the Commonwealth, with its distinctive lingering second note.

    It originally marked the end of a sentry inspection at the close of the day and its use as an act of remembrance appears to have begun in the mid 19th century.

    The piece is now longer than it once was, extended from 45 seconds to 75. It is integral to the Remembrance service at the Whitehall Cenotaph.

     

     

    Beethoven's Funeral March No. 1 - Johann Heinrich Walch

    The majestic, elegiac tone of this brass band march has earned its place at many a state funeral, including that of King Edward VII. There’s a gentler major-key trio at the heart of an otherwise sombre, succinctly written work.

    For many years misattributed to Beethoven, it’s now believed to be the handiwork of Johann Heinrich Walch (1776-1855). He was a German musician well known for his marches, which also include the Pariser Einzugsmarsch

     

     

     

    O God, Our Help in Ages Past - words by Isaac Watts, music by William Croft

    William Croft wrote his ‘St Anne’ tune while he was organist at the Church of St Anne, Soho, but the hymn text we know today wasn’t added until 1719.

    The tune has been incorporated into works by Handel, Arthur Sullivan, and Vaughan Williams, and is still one of the best-known hymns ever written.

     

     

    Reveille

    Another bugle call, the Reveille often follows The Last Post. While the latter reflects on the fallen, evoking sunset and the end of the earthly life, the ‘Reveille’ symbolises sunrise and resurrection.

    It was traditionally used to wake military forces and its name comes from réveiller, the French word for ‘wake up’.

     

     

    God Save the Queen

    The national anthem of the UK takes a key role in Remembrance Day activities across the Commonwealth.

    Although the piece has obscure origins – sometimes attributed to composer John Bull, c1619, or even Purcell – the first published recognisable version dates from 1744.

    The anthem, when played in the presence of the Queen at the Royal Albert Hall’s Festival of Remembrance, is enriched by the venue’s grand organ. 

  • Six of the best... classical saxophonists

    classical-music.com | Tue, 06 Nov 2018 12:41:44 +0000

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    Best known for being an important part of the jazz and pop music scenes, the mighty saxophone is often overlooked when it comes to classical music. However, here too its expressive, fluid tone and surprising amount of repertoire means that it has a major role to play.

    As an increasing number of players advocate the style, the classical saxophone is more popular now than it has ever been. Here are six of the best classical saxophonists, past and present, to introduce you to this exciting sound.

     

    Marcel Mule (1901-2001)

    Frenchman Marcel Mule was a highly influential figure in the world of the classical saxophone throughout the 20th century. Seen as the creator of the French saxophone school, Mule was the second professor of saxophone at the Paris Conservatoire, after Adolph Sax himself.

    His teaching involved emphasis on sound quality, and many of his pupils became significant figures in the music world. A pioneer of the classical saxophone, Mule premiered a great deal of new repertoire, and led the way for the genre to expand and develop.

     

     

    Sigurd Raschèr (1907-2001)

    Sigurd Raschèr was a contemporary of Mule; however, he took a very different approach to the instrument. After moving to saxophone from clarinet because he thought it would be easier to play, Raschèr soon became frustrated by what he considered to be the limitations of the saxophone’s sound.

    Working tirelessly to hone his technique, he mastered the instrument and demonstrated its versatility. He encouraged classical composers to write works for the saxophone: Glazunov, Hindemith and Milhaud all dedicated compositions to him.

    At the height of his career, Raschèr was a celebrated concert saxophonist, playing with many of the world’s greatest orchestras.

     

     

    Eugene Rousseau (born 1932)

    Eugene Rousseau was an acclaimed pupil of Mule’s, but has since become an influential instrumentalist in his own right. Rousseau has achieved many milestones in the classical saxophone genre, including performing the first solo saxophone recitals in cities such as London, Paris and Vienna.

    In 1969 he co-founded the World Saxophone Congress, and he has been president of both the Comité International du Saxophone and the North American Saxophone Alliance.

     

     

    John Harle (born 1956)

    John Harle is one of the leading saxophonists of his generation. A player and composer, his work covers both the classical and popular genres. He was appointed the youngest ever professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1989.

    A premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s controversial saxophone concerto Panic at the Last Night of the BBC Proms in 1995 thrust Harle into the spotlight, and since then his work has been important in popularising the genre.

    He has achieved great commercial success, and is one of the world’s most recorded saxophonists.

     

     

    Arno Bornkamp (born 1959)

    A master of both the traditional and the more contemporary repertoire, Arno Bornkamp is a saxophonist who is highly admired for his virtuosic playing style. He has won many prestigious awards, including the 'Silver Laurel of the Concertgebouw' and the 'Netherlands Music Prize'.

    In 2001 Bornkamp and pianist Ivo Janssen released Adolphe Sax Revisited, a collection of 19th-century compositions performed on period instruments including saxophones made by Adolph Sax himself.

    A keen chamber musician, he plays tenor saxophone in the much-acclaimed Aurelia Quartet.

     

     

    Amy Dickson (born 1982)

    Australian saxophonist Amy Dickson is quickly making a name for herself as a rising star in the saxophone world. She studied under Arno Bornkamp at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and has since gone on to win a great number of awards, including becoming the first saxophonist to win a classic Brit award, as Breakthrough Artist of the Year in 2013.

    Passionate about new music, Dickson has had works commissioned from composers such as Steve Martland and Timothy Salter. Known for her unique tone and masterful control of the instrument, she effortlessly bridges the gaps between different genres and styles.

     

     

    Kirsten Beveridge

  • Free Download: John Jenkins's Newark Siege for trumpet and piano

    classical-music.com | Tue, 06 Nov 2018 09:00:00 +0000

    'The fanfares and percussive rhythms sound brilliant and incisive on brass and keyboard'

    This week's free download is John Jenkins's Newark Siege, performed by trumpeter Jonathan Freeman-Attwood and pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar. It is recorded on the Linn label and received four stars in the October issue of BBC Music Magazine.

    DOWNLOAD INSTRUCTIONS:

    If you'd like to enjoy our free weekly download simply log in or sign up to our website.

    Once you've done that, return to this page and you'll be able to see a 'Download Now' button on the picture above – simply click on it to download your free track.

    If you experience any technical problems please email support@classical-music.com. Please reference 'Classical Music Free Download', and include details of the system you are using and your location. If you are unsure of what details to include please take a screenshot of this page.

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  • Six of the best... pieces of music for Firework Night

    classical-music.com | Mon, 05 Nov 2018 11:31:06 +0000

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    In anticipation of Guy Fawkes Night, we have been listening to some explosive music inspired by fire. From pieces written especially for firework displays to works inspired by volcanos, fire has been the impetus for some thrilling music over time.

    Whether you’re building a bonfire, hosting a firework party or just want something to drown out the loud pops and bangs, here are six of the best pieces of music to listen to on Firework Night.

     

    1. George Frideric Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks

    In 1749, King George II requested that Handel compose a suite to accompany a grand firework display in London's Green Park. The work was so highly anticipated that over 12,000 people tried to travel to Vauxhall Gardens to watch a full rehearsal, bringing the surrounding streets to a complete standstill for several hours.

    On the day of the firework display, Handel’s music outshined the fireworks themselves – the weather was poor and one of the wooden pavilions built specially for the occasion caught fire.

    The music is full of pride and vigour and continues to be frequently performed for stately occasions. At the 2012 Proms Hervé Niquet and French Baroque group, Le Concert Spirituel, performed the work on period instruments.

     

     

    2. Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 59 in A major ‘Fire’

    The nickname ‘Fire’ was not given to his Symphony No. 59 by Haydn himself, but it's not difficult to see why the name has stuck. With a first movement marked 'presto', the work begins with a fast and brave tempo that most composers would use for a climactic final movement.

    The energy continues throughout, even in the andante second movement, which crackles with ornamentation above a constantly shifting bass part. The third movement, a minuet and trio, relies on an antiphonal theme between the high and low sections of the orchestra, and the final movement is punctuated with the bright call of horns.

    The symphony's nickname is also supposed to have derived from the fact that it was used as incidental music for Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Großmann's play Der Feuersbrunst – or 'The Conflagration'.

     

     

    3. Jean Sibelius: Tulen Synty

    The myths depicted in the epic Finnish poem Kalevala have inspired countless Nordic artists and Jean Sibelius was no exception. Tulen Synty, which translates as ‘The Origin of Fire’, is a cantata for baritone, male choir and orchestra based on the saga, first performed in 1902.

    The soloist's opening passage laments the struggles faced by the dark land of Kalevala after the theft of the sun, the moon and fire. This sombre section is complimented by a mournful orchestral accompaniment, reflecting the hardships brought upon the land.

    When the chief of the gods creates new fire, the chorus are brought in, first quietly smouldering and then, in a glorious crescendo that burns bright.

     

     

    4. Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird – Finale

    The explosive Finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird, one of the BBC’s ‘Ten Pieces’ to inspire children, is difficult for even the most seasoned listener to tire of. The modernist masterpiece marked the beginning of the historic collaboration between Stravinsky and choreographer Sergei Diaghilev in the famous Ballets Russes.

    Diaghilev’s 1909 season had attracted criticism from the Parisian press for a lack of novelty and he answered this by commissioning a work based on the most exotic Russian fairy tale he could think of: Zhar′-ptitsa – ‘The Firebird’.

     

     

    5. Michael Daugherty: Fire and Blood – I: Volcano

    During his time as composer-in-residence at the University of Michigan, Michael Daugherty became inspired by artist Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals and the paintings of Freida Kahlo, which document the tempestuous relationship between these two artists.

    In response to their highly emotive creations, he wrote what he has called his own ‘musical fresco’ – a violin concerto rather gruesomely entitled Fire and Blood. The first movement of the work, ‘Volcano’, is a forceful and threatening piece, constantly teetering on the edge of eruption.

    The soloist’s cadenza is full of suspense, hissing and flickering like a flame, and the movement ends with a bang.

     

     

    6. Oliver Knussen - Flourish with fireworks

    Taking a strong influence from Stravinsky, Knussen’s short orchestral piece Flourish with fireworks captures the characteristics of every kind of firework imaginable – there are soaring chromatics that fly high like rockets, trills that spin like Catherine Wheels and pizzicato sections that are as bright as sparklers

    Of course, on Firework Night, the anticipation is as important as the explosion itself, and Knusson’s ingenious use of rests only adds to the building excitement.

     

     

    Anna Samson

  • British Composer Awards 2018 Nominees Announced

    classical-music.com | Thu, 01 Nov 2018 11:59:35 +0000

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    The nominees for this year’s British Composer Awards have been announced, with the best new works by Britain’s contemporary composers selected across 12 categories including orchestral, jazz, sonic art, stage works and wind or brass band. 

    This year's nominees were chosen from a total of 560 submissions, a record-breaking number. The entrants were judged anonymously for the first time. 

    Recent compositions by Oliver Knussen, Judith Weir, Harrison Birtwistle, Graham Fitkin and Thomas Adès have been selected as nominees.

    Works in the list taking inspiration from poetry and other artforms include a piece by Roxanna Panufnik, which draws on world music and Indian poetry, and a reimagining by Dee Isaacs of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1834 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to consider the role of refugees in the world today.

    Marginalised voices have been given a platform by several compositions shortlisted in this year's British Composer Awards, including a piece composed for disabled performers by Oliver Searle and Liam Taylor-West, a work to be performed by an orchestra in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction by Conall Gleeson.

    The winners will be announced at a ceremony at the British Museum in London on Tuesday 4 December. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 9pm on Sunday 9 December.

     

    The full list of nominees are below:

     

    Amateur or Young Performers
    Works for voluntary, amateur or youth choirs and ensembles

    • Fiery Tales by Richard Bullen
    • Microscopic Dances by Oliver Searle
    • The Caretaker's Guide to the Orchestra by Jeremy Holland-Smith

     

    Chamber Ensemble
    Six or more instruments or voices written for one player or voice per part

    • Libro di fiammelle e ombre by James Weeks
    • O Hototogisu! by Oliver Knussen
    • Tanz/haus : triptych 2017 by James Dillon 

     

    Choral
    A cappella or accompanied, except works for choir and orchestra

    • In the Land of Uz by Judith Weir
    • Mielo by Raymond Yiu
    • Unending Love by Roxanna Panufnik

     

    Community or Educational Project
    Works demonstrating a composer’s work in community engagement alongside compositional craft

    • Solace by Conall Gleeson
    • The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - a retelling for our times by Dee Isaacs
    • The Umbrella by Liam Taylor-West

     

    Jazz Composition for Large Ensemble
    Nine or more instruments or voices that contain interactive improvisation as an essential element 

    • Afronaut by Cassie Kinoshi
    • Rituals by Matt London
    • Time by Finlay Panter

     

    Jazz Composition for Small Ensemble
    Up to eight instruments or voices that contain interactive improvisation as an essential element

    • Close to Ecstasy by Simon Lasky
    • Vegetarians by Ivo Neame
    • You've Got to Play the Game by Johnny Richards

     

    Orchestral

    • Deep Time by Harrison Birtwistle
    • Recorder Concerto by Graham Fitkin
    • The Imaginary Museum by Julian Anderson

      

    Small Chamber
    Three to five instruments or voices written for one player or voice per part

    • Chant by Charlotte Bray
    • Lines Between by Robert Laidlow
    • Unbreathed by Rebecca Saunders

     

    Solo or Duo
    Instrumental or vocal music performed by one or two players or voices

    • A Damned Mob of Scribbling Women by Laura Bowler
    • Belmont Chill by William Marsey
    • The Harmonic Canon by Dominic Murcott

     

    Sonic Art
    Sound art installations, electronic music and works with live electronics

    • Halfway to Heaven by Emily Peasgood
    • The Otheroom by Rolf Wallin
    • Two Machines by Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian and Hugh Jones as ‘Crewdson & Cevanne’

     

    Stage Works
    Works specifically written for the stage, including opera, dance and musical theatre

    • Shorelines by Oliver Coates
    • The Exterminating Angel by Thomas Adès
    • The World's Wife by Tom Green

     

    Wind Band or Brass Band

    • Dark Arteries Suite by Gavin Higgins
    • Mindscapes by Lucy Pankhurst
    • The Turing Test by Simon Dobson

  • The best recordings of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7

    classical-music.com | Wed, 31 Oct 2018 09:00:00 +0000

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    One of the best-loved of his nine symphonies, Beethoven’s uplifting Seventh is, unsurprisingly, also one of his most recorded.

    Beethoven never retraces his steps, each one of his symphonies exploring a new path of musical expression. Undoubtedly the driving force of the Seventh is its obsessive utilisation of rhythm, a feature which thrilled Berlioz to the core and inspired the famous comment from Wagner that the work represented the ‘apotheosis of the dance’.

    Composed between 1811 and 1812, the Symphony was given its first performance under Beethoven’s direction in December 1813 at a charity concert in Vienna for soldiers wounded at the Battle of Hanau, and the orchestra included many of the finest musicians of the day including Spohr, Hummel and Meyerbeer.

    The audience gave the work a favourable reception and demanded that the second movement be encored. But not everyone was so favourably disposed. One critic suggested that the composer had exploited disagreeable eccentricities for their own sake and a daring sequence of chromatic harmonies in the first movement allegedly led Weber to declare that Beethoven was ‘now only fit for the madhouse’.

     

    The best recording

    Claudio Abbado (conductor)
    Berlin Philharmonic (1999)
    DG E471 4902

    Well over 100 conductors have recorded Beethoven’s Seventh with many setting down several versions. Arturo Toscanini set the bar high thanks to his barnstorming account with the New York Philharmonic from 1936.

    After this, vastly different approaches to the score were offered by such conductors as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Otto Klemperer and Hermann Scherchen, while the mid 1970s recording by Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic deserves a special place in any collection.

    Each of the recordings that stand out manages to remind us of the original compositional skills at work. Claudio Abbado’s Berlin recording achieves this in abundance, investing significancenin each phrase, employing a vast range of dynamics, from a magical pianissimo to the most powerful fortissimo, while paying attention to the musical narrative.

    Incidental details are noteworthy, such as the subtly elegant phrasing of the oboe melody in the introduction to the first movement, or the way Abbado negotiates the Transition from the introduction to the main allegro.

    There’s an overwhelming sense of melancholy and emotional intensity to the first climax of the second movement Allegretto. The Berlin Phil responds to his every nuance, only faltering briefly at the outset of the finale, while the recorded sound has great presence.

     

    Three more great recordings

    Riccardo Chailly (conductor)
    Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (2012)
    Decca 478 3496

    Riccardo Chailly takes on the mantle of Arturo Toscanini, offering a vibrant, rhythmically taut and classical view of the score with brisk speeds. Despite using a full-sized orchestra, conductor and orchestra achieve a miraculous transparency through a leaner string tone which allows woodwind, brass and timpani to cut through the texture with amazing impact.

    The climactic passage of the first movement, with the horns at full throttle, is a thrilling moment. Yet Chailly can also inspire moments of delicacy, with the third movement scherzo achieving an almost Mendelssohnian lightness of articulation while the string fugato in the middle of the Allegretto combines energy and dynamism with mystery.

    Outstanding playing from the Leipzigers and Decca’s immediate sound make this a desirable recording.

     

    John Eliot Gardiner (conductor)
    Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (1995)
    DG Archiv 477 8643

    Period performance has exercised a profound impact on our present day approach to Beethoven. And many recent recordings of the Seventh acknowledge this (for example Thomas Dausgaard and Paavo Järvi) by trying to replicate the sonorities with which Beethoven was familiar in terms of modern instruments.

    Yet there’s still something even more dynamic in John Eliot Gardiner’s performance. Both orchestra and conductor seem to be engaged on an exciting voyage of rediscovery, as if they are intent on restoring the vibrant colours of an age-old masterpiece.

     

     

    The result is compelling, as fervent rhythms, accented sforzandos and stark contrasts in dynamics and articulation bring a volcanic energy to the orchestration and a rawness that makes evident the revolutionary daring of Beethoven’s musical expression.

     

    Osmo Vänskä (conductor)
    Minnesota Orchestra (2008)
    BIS SACD1816

    From the rhythmically articulated, forward-thrusting opening bars and the miraculously quietascending string semiquavers that ensue, it’s evident that Vänskä has something individual to say about the score, and his interpretation holds your attention spellbound during each movement.

    There’s an amazing attention to detail with a faithful and meticulous observation of Beethoven’s markings. Inner strings offer pulsating rhythmic energy at the return of the main idea in the first allegro and accented cellos and basses bring extra urgency to the finale’s close.

     

     

    The third movement scherzo combines dynamism with touches of unbuttoned humour while the Allegretto is warm and expressive. BIS supplies a vivid SACD recording, and the disciplined playing makes this release a formidable contender.

     

    And one to avoid

    Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)
    Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (2006)
    DG 477 6228

    Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra tear into Beethoven’s Seventh with tremendous gusto offering playing of intermittently impressive virtuosity. The surface impact

    can be exciting in places, but the articulation in the big tuttis is heavy, and in the quieter passages the wind don’t always provide an ideally blended texture. This interpretation lacks subtlety, and the finale, taken at a fast and furious tempo, is too hard-driven, lessening its cumulative rhythmic power.

     

     

  • Cakes inspired by classical music

    classical-music.com | Wed, 31 Oct 2018 08:00:00 +0000

  • The best classical music inspired by baking

    classical-music.com | Tue, 30 Oct 2018 16:02:16 +0000

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    Hansel and Gretel – Humperdinck

    The Great British Bake Off contestants have been nothing if not inventive when it comes to gingerbread, creating structures ranging from pubs to entire weddings. Humperdinck's 1893 opera sticks to a more traditional but no less ambitious construction – a gingerbread house.

    With Star-Baker-worthy skill but dubious motives, the delicious edible home has been created by the Gingerbread Witch to lure in children. Humperdinck's colourful, tuneful music has made this fairytale opera a classic.

     

     

    Dance of the Sugar Plum FairyTchaikovsky

    In Act II of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, Clara is whisked to the Land of the Sweets. It's the realm of the Sugar Plum Fairy, a magical creature inspired by a sweet made up of sugary layers. To conjure up her otherworldly delicacy, Tchaikovsky turned to an instrument that had been invented just five years before he wrote his ballet.

    The silvery Celesta gives the Sugar Plum Fairy's variation a distinctive colour, accompanied by pizzicato strings and woodwind, including bass clarinet.

     

     

    SchlagobersRichard Strauss

    Princess Pralinée, Prince Cocoa and Mlle Marianne Chartreuse are just three of the characters that pop up in Strauss's ballet Schlagobers – 'Whipped Cream'. Set in a Viennese cake shop, various sweets come to life and entertain a group of children.

    A lavish premiere took place in 1924… but it turned the critics' stomachs. In a post-war era of food shortages and deprivation, perhaps this saccharine vision was a step too far. Strauss explained: 'I cannot bear the tragedy of the present time. I want to create joy.'

     

     

    Alice's Adventures in Wonderland – Joby Talbot

    Alice sits on a cupcake chair, a flamboyant character is tap-dancing on a table. This is the 'Mad Hatter's Tea Party', an ear-catchingly orchestrated number from Joby Talbot's full-length 2011 ballet for Covent Garden.

    There are baked goods aplenty in Lewis Carroll's famous tale, adapted for stage by Nicholas Wright: Alice eats a cake that makes her grow huge, while the Queen of Hearts is, of course, on a mission to find out who stole the jam tarts.

     

     

    'Cakes and Ale' from the Suite on English Folk Tunes (A time there was) Britten

    'We'll Wed' and 'Stepney Cakes and Ale' are the two melodies that Britten draws inspiration from in the first movement of his Suite on English Folk Tunes (a time there was). Dedicated to Percy Grainger and drawing inspiration from Thomas Hardy's Winter Words, it was the British composer's last orchestral work.

    Don't be fooled by the 'Cakes and Ale' subtitle, though, as there's not a spoonful of sugar or ounce of fat added to this leanly scored movement.

     

     

    Wedding CakeSaint-Saëns

    Nicknamed the 'Wedding Cake', the Valse-Caprice for piano and strings, Op. 76 is a charming confection that's joyous and uplifting. Written for the wedding of the composer’s friend Caroline de Serres, an excellent pianist, the solo piano part is aptly virtuosic.

     

     

    O Dame Get Up and Bake Your Pies – Bax

    Bax wrote this slight yet enjoyable set of piano variations for his friends Anna and Julian Herbage 'in acknowledgement of pies baked and enjoyed "on Christmas Day in the morning" 1945'.

    Bax based his musical thank-you gift on the old North Country carol of the title, although it was actually broadcast by Harriet Cohen on Radio 3 on 23 December 1945. There's no record of what was in the pies.

     

     

    Sweeney Todd – Sondheim

    We do, however, know exactly what was in Mrs Lovett's pies, her secret ingredient transforming them from the worst to the best in London. Unfortunately for them, her unsuspecting customers had no idea that they were gobbling up Sweeney Todd's hapless victims. Sondheim's 1979 show, a 'black operetta', as he described it, was a hit.

    Listen out for echoes of Britten, Bernard Herrmann and the ominous Dies Irae in his vibrant score.

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