Archives for December 2009

A Christmas Cracker!

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 15:41 UK time, Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Messiah_ENO_pic_Tristram_Ke.jpgWe've a Christmas Cracker for you: it's a short film of a 'composite' performance of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus using recordings made by some of the 450 choirs who signed up for Sing Hallelujah!

Watch the film and you'll be intrigued by the variety of orchestration, tempi, choral forces, and - yes - even concert pitch adopted by the choirs. This is the link to watch the film: - you might like to entertain your friends by sending it to them, and the film can be embedded on your own web page.

Don't forget that the highlight of Christmas Day on Radio 3 will be a recording of English National Opera's production of Messiah with Sophie Bevan (soprano), Catherine Wyn Rogers (alto), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Brindley Sherratt (bass) and the ENO Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Laurence Cummings. That's in Performance on 3 at 7pm.





A Rounde O of Musicke by Henricus Purcellus delivered unto ye Publicke in AD MMIX

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 15:19 UK time, Wednesday, 23 December 2009

nell_gwynne_as_diana.jpgIt is not too late to buy your friends and fellow Purcell lovers a Purcell CD for Christmas. My disc of the year is The Complete Fantazias (SIC) performed by the viol consort Fretwork  on the Harmonia mundi label (HM907502). Their instruments' warm, fibrous pleading carries the long fluid lines of Purcell's imitative counterpoint in a finely balanced ensemble, expressive of the most agreeable melancholy. Purcell, who was careful to date each of the 15 Fantazias, composed them almost daily throughout June and August 1680, which must rank as one of the greatest bursts of creative energy in history. He was only 21 yet capable of handling the three, four, five, six and seven part textures with supreme skill. The lines weave together with natural elegance, augmenting and inverting the themes or echoing already heard features like an expensive cloth of the sort depicted on the cover close-up of James I's trousers. One can almost sense Purcell smiling at his own brilliance in the extraordinary five-part Fantazia Upon One Note. The last two are both In Nomines, which form, based on a plainsong cantus firmus, every English composer since Taverner had essayed. After Purcell none did until Maxwell Davies and even his was homage. There is no record that other composers were jealous of Purcell though they had every right to be. In fact, he seems to have been one of the best loved composers in history and this CD gives ample evidence of why. The music is both modest and sublime and Fretwork's performance faultless.

Beautifully presented in a hardback, 130-page book with stunning illustrations and learned articles is the double disc To Saint Cecilia by Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre on the naïve label (V5183). It contains an ode, a song and a mass to the saint by Purcell, Handel and Haydn respectively, but the former has pride of place. Minkowski's phrasing is Lully-esque while the singers' diction rather continental on the dipthongs 'Hail' and 'Nature' - except for Lucy Crowe's, of course. She sings Thou tun'st the Earth with effortless, sprightly radiance. Tis Nature's Voice is entrusted to Anders Dahlin, not an alto but an extreme tenor, or as the French call it, haute contre. Italian bass Tittoto's full-speed Wondrous Machine achieves maximum power and thrust with no sense of strain. That, to me, has been the Purcell aria of the year, especially since Neal Davies' thrilling rendition in Westminster Abbey on St Cecilia's eve.


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Christmas Eve special Late Junction sessions

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Peter Meanwell Peter Meanwell | 17:08 UK time, Monday, 21 December 2009

280px-Maida_Vale_Studios_in_2009.jpgThis year has seen the start of an exciting new project for Late Junction. Inspired by the ever-intriguing juxtaposition of different musical genres and cultures in the programme - you might hear Gregorian chant nestled next to some industrial noise, or the ethereal sound of shakuhachi blending with Tuvan overtone singing - the Late Junction Sessions is an attempt to create that sense of musical serendipity in a live context.

The concept is simple: bring together two sets of musicians who have never worked together before, put them in the BBC's Maida Vale studios for a day and see what happens. And what has so far happened has been a fascinating blend of musics and cultures, the creation of some truly interesting musical hybrids and for many of the musicians a dynamic and liberating day of music making.

The series kicked off in February 2009 with the collaboration of Touareg desert bluesmen Tinariwen and English folk experimentalists Tunng. They had never met, didn't speak the same language even, but created a sound that was at once familiar and unsettling, as flavours from both bands mingled to create something fresh. The bands got on so well that day that they ended up taking their collaboration on tour around the UK. Electronic composer Mira Calix and songwriter Malcolm Middleton came away from their session in August with not only a set of haunting and at time disturbing ballads, but talk of recording a whole album together. The day had shown them both new ways of working, and inspired them to carry on that process.


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Seeking Messiah

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Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 16:31 UK time, Monday, 21 December 2009

dali_christ_of_st_john_of_t.jpgBizarrely, I think I've managed to get through almost my entire year as the Radio 3 Handel blogger without mentioning Messiah.  Maybe that's a good thing (why, after all, should I talk to listeners about a piece they already know so well?), but I can't let the year go by without mentioning it, especially at a time when its music is everywhere.  Indeed, in the run up to Christmas in this anniversary year, over 400 choirs across the country will be performing the famous 'Hallelujah Chorus'.

Perhaps one reason for the enduring popularity of Handel's Messiah is its double 'bite of the cherry' - the fact that in any given year you'll usually have the chance to hear it at Easter and at Christmas.  That suggestion may seem a bit facetious, but my underlying point is serious: unlike Bach's Passions, which unambiguously tell the Easter story of suffering and salvation, Messiah has no clear narrative structure, and encompasses aspects of Christ's religious significance from the prophecy of his birth, through the Passion, to the day of judgement.  This means that, in Christian terms, it's just as appropriate to sing it at Christmas as it is at Easter (indeed, Christians recognise the symbiosis of these two stories of Christ's birth and death). 

That lack of narrative comes from a venerable theological tradition of fragmenting and juxtaposing texts - usually Old and New Testaments - in order to make a point (particularly about the foretelling of Jesus as Messiah).  This is the tradition that Handel's librettist, Charles Jennens, was working in.  Of course, avoiding a narrative was also necessary to avoid committing blasphemy: it wasn't till the mid-20th century that you could actually ask someone to play the 'role' of Christ.  (There's a delicious irony in the fact that, as this is also a Monty Python anniversary year - the 'Ruby Jubilee' - they did a one-off show in October entitled Not The Messiah (He's A Very Naughty Boy), The Musical ... but that's another story.)


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What is jazz? Don't ask the Spanish police ...

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Roger Short Roger Short | 12:43 UK time, Friday, 11 December 2009

larryochs.jpgPoor Larry Ochs. There he was playing a set at the Sigüenza Jazz Festival with his band Drumming Core, when (according to a report this week in the Guardian
a posse of armed Spanish police arrived en masse to investigate claims from a disgruntled customer that he was not playing jazz at all but some other form of 'contemporary music'.
The irony is that Larry, a versatile saxophonist from California who specialises on the sopranino sax as well as the tenor, has spent most of his playing career investigating the interstices between contemporary composition, jazz and free improvisation. For 32 years, he's been a member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, a group dedicated to mixing jazz and the experimental end of composition.
When I heard the group at a Bath Festival appearance a few years ago, their set ranged from free improv to a complex score by Barry Guy that involved playing sequences of composed material in a random order. There was not a great difference aurally between one genre and the other, and the boundaries have been further blurred in Larry's other work: the acoustic-meets-computers band Room in the 1980s, his International Creative Orchestra (with pianist Wayne Horvitz) in the 90s, and his concerts with trombonist George Lewis and the AACM. When I made a BBC World Service documentary about Larry and the Rova Quartet in 2002, we got plenty of letters asking what their kind of music was doing on a jazz programme. But in my interview with him, Larry eloquently made the case for a jazz connection in almost everything he does.

The question 'What is jazz?' has been vexing listeners since the origins of the music. Paul Whiteman's 'symphonic jazz' was reviled by purist critics in the 1920s, but gave birth to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Cab Calloway dismissed Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker 's 1940s experiments as 'Chinese music', and Ornette Coleman was heavily criticised for his free jazz of the late 1950s and early 60s by listeners who wanted at least the semblance of a recognisable harmonic sequence.
When Rashied Ali replaced Elvin Jones's rhythmic backdrop to John Coltrane with an impressionistic wash of sound, the old definitions of jazz as music with 'syncopation' and 'swing' went out of the window. So how can we define it? I tend to side with Dr. Johnson. When he was compiling his dictionary, he did not feel it was his job to be prescriptive about what words ought to mean, rather he attempted to reflect what a word has come to mean over time. And so his view about the changing definition of the word 'jazz' might well be summed up by this paragraph from his preface: 'In every word of extensive use, it was requisite to mark the progress of its meaning, and show by what gradations of intermediate sense it has passed from its primitive to its remote and accidental signification; so that every foregoing explanation should tend to that which follows, and the series be regularly concatenated from the first notion to the last.' 

Those of us who write or broadcast on the history of jazz would do well to remember the sage doctor. If enough people agree that a particular type of music is 'jazz' and call it by that name, then in due course, that type of music becomes part of the concatenated sequence of definitions of jazz. On the other hand, maybe the best advice to the Spanish police would be from the old adage about Fats Waller. When he was asked 'What is jazz? he apparently replied, 'Lady, if you gotta ask, you ain't got it!

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