Archives for January 2010

Hurrah for adventurous radio feature-making

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Abigail Appleton Abigail Appleton | 16:51 UK time, Thursday, 28 January 2010

We've a long interview with Martin Amis coming up in Night Waves next Thursday - the occasion of course is his new novel which is already stirring up debate and I'm looking forward to hearing his conversation with Philip Dodd.

But it was something Martin Amis wrote some time ago that came to my mind earlier this week. It's a short story, and I've not read it for a while, but I remember it inverts to wonderful comic effect the worlds of Hollywood and poetry publishing - so that screenplay writers submit their work to little magazines and poets are flown to Los Angeles first class. It struck me that Amis might have chosen radio feature-makers instead of poets for this absurd reversal of fortunes when on Tuesday night I was listening to independent radio producer Alan Hall introduce the first event from a new organisation - In The Dark.

alan_hall.jpgHe described radio documentary makers as occupying a territory between journalism and art. For those of us that love the crafted radio feature, that's often its great strength but lack of easy categorisation may also contribute to its relatively low profile against other cultural forms plus of course the nature of the medium. In the Dark aims to challenge this and is devoted to celebrating and enriching the culture of radio documentary and claiming a place for it alongside film and TV, photography, journalism and the arts.

It was formed last year by a documentary filmmaker turned radio enthusiast, Nina Garthwaite, who plans a series of public listening events aimed at creating a community of discussion and criticism around radio feature-making. Tuesday's event also marked the beginning of a partnership with the London International Documentary Festival which has inspired her. It was a hugely enjoyable and thought-provoking night packed with radio professionals and listeners from this country and abroad. I was rather relieved it wasn't held completely in the dark but the lights were certainly dimmed low as we sat back to listen whilst looking, someone said afterwards, as if we were all gazing up at an invisible screen watching the programmes in our heads.

Though the main event was 'Mighty Mac' a prize-winning documentary from Ireland's RTE, the evening began with a couple of shorter extracts from seminal programmes including, to launch it all, an extract from Monument - 'The Twist' composed by Ian Gardiner and produced by Alan Hall in 1993. This programme launched Radio 3's Between the Ears series and went on to win a Prix Italia. I admit to having felt rather proud in this international company that Radio 3's longstanding support for adventurous radio features was being acknowledged in this way.

This coming Saturday the latest Between the Ears takes as its theme a moment in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard once described as the most significant sound effect in world drama. Within the programme the theatre director Tom Morris talks about the incredible power of sound in theatre claiming 'the ear is often a freer gateway to the imagination than the eye.' It's a sentiment that would have gone down well at In The Dark.


Different VerbDays ...

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Ian McMillan Ian McMillan | 11:20 UK time, Monday, 25 January 2010

milkman_copyrightBBC.jpgFor some reason I always wake up very, very early: between half past four and five o'clock in the morning. I put this down to the fact that for years a milkman (who also conducted one of the local Male Voice Choirs) came down our street at that time and his rattling and clinking woke me up. Colin Leech has been retired for a long time, but I guess there must be some kind of fossilised aural memory there that clangs my eyes open.

I can't get up at that time so I listen to my radio on my headphones, catching something lovely on Through the Night and then getting the news on Five Live. Then, on a Wednesday, a normal Verb recording day, I get up about half-past five, do some geriatric exercises, eat some Fruit and Fibre* and make sure I've got all the books I need for the show. I make my way to Doncaster to catch the 07.30 train to London. It's first stop King's Cross and, amazingly, we get there at 09.07; I like to sit in the little vestibule between the carriages: it's like having my own little room, with a bench and toilet. Every now and then the guard will tell me there are seats available but I like my vestibule. It gives me time to think Verby thoughts. People sometimes say 'Do you have to stay over in London?' and they're amazed when I tell them that the last train home is the 23.30 so there's hardly ever any need for a hotel bed. 

At King's Cross I scuttle down to the tube and go to Great Portland Street station. At Great Portland Street I buy a banana, and then I start to eat it in the lift at Broadcasting House. I stroll into the seventh floor, get the kettle on, and my producer Laura Thomas and I go through the script and think of some questions. Then, at 13.00 it's into the studio and the recording can begin! I'm a creature of habit...

bbc_radio_theatre.jpgThis week will be different, though; the day will have a different rhythm because The Verb is live from the lovely Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House. We do a Live Edition every six weeks or so and, although the day still begins at the crack of dawn, I don't have to go down to London until later on; I find I'm like a man waiting to start an afternoon shift, pacing the house until it's time to leave. It will feel odd not going to London on a Wednesday; this Wednesday I'm visiting a junior school in Accrington with my cartoonist pal Tony Husband, making poems and cartoons. I'll sneak a banana in somewhere!

The day of a live show builds towards the event; we go through the script, we check out the Radio Theatre, we welcome the guests and get them soundchecked, I watch the audience coming in and try to welcome them all personally, I go on stage and do a warmup, I get my headphones on and then suddenly it's 21.15 and the show is on the air...

And I'll be waking up in the morning at half-past four, in time for a little slice of Through the Night and dollop of news...

*Other breakfast cereals are available ... [Ed.]

  • Ian's live edition of The Verb is on Friday 29 January at 9.15pm on BBC Radio 3. For programme details, follow this link.
  • Free tickets are available - for details, follow this link.

Henze Total Immersion - Encouraging the next generation...

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 16:32 UK time, Monday, 18 January 2010

The best aspect of yesterday's BBC R3 Henze day was the quality, variety and number of different events on offer.  Of course, the emphasis has been on the music and life of Hans Werner Henze, but it was refreshing (and important) to have a brief opportunity to sample some talent from the next generation of composers. 
julian_anderson2.jpgTaking place in one of the Barbican foyers before the evening concert and attracting an enthusiastic crowd of attentive listeners, this was the climax of the BBC Symphony Orchestra Learning and Guildhall of Music and Drama Composition Project.  Three postgraduate composers were asked to write a piece for octet, under the guidance of Julian Anderson, Professor of Composition and Composer-in-Residence at the Guildhall School.   Each of the pieces took some inspiration from topics covered in the songs of Henze's cycle Voices (see earlier blog) and the composers had the added incentive (challenge?) of writing not only for fellow student musicians from the Guildhall, but also members of the BBCSO -  Peter Davis (clarinet), Tamsy Kaner (cello), Nicholas Korth (horn), and violinist Anna Smith.  With the other instruments of the ensemble being viola, flute, harp and percussion, I felt it offered particularly interesting and challenging options to experiment with orchestration and sonorities. 
The three composers featured were Alastair Putt with Impetus, David Ibbett who composed Albion Trails and Matther Kaner's Octet.  Conductor Richard Baker provided confident and precise direction from the podium.  I enjoyed listening to all three works, but particularly appreciated David Ibbett's Albion Trails.  Having spent the whole day immersed in Henze's music, it was revealing to compare how the master can manage to say so much with different combinations of only a few instruments, whereas one often got the impression from these student compositions that everyone was almost trying too hard to use all the resources of the instruments available.   Sometimes less is far, far more.I'm sure that the composers appreciated having the chance to work with and get feedback from the professionals of the BBCSO during this most worthwhile collaboration between the orchestra and the Guildhall.  

The BBC Symphony Orchestra's immersion exertion ...

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 20:53 UK time, Sunday, 17 January 2010

hans_werner_henze.jpg'Fiona, can I hear your bongos?' is a rather unusual way for a conductor to begin most orchestral rehearsals but that's how the General (final) rehearsal for the BBC Symphony Orchestra's contribution to the Total Immersion weekend of Hans Werner Henze's music in the Barbican started. As the orchestra normally rehearses in a different venue (the notoriously dry acoustics of Maida Vale Studio 1) everything now sounds rather different from the previous few days.

Not that the orchestra isn't used to the Barbican acoustics, but some balances inevitably have to be addressed and our conductor Oliver Knussen is anxious to tackle them straight away.'Don't give me Health and Safety fortissimos, give me the real thing,' he bellows at the hard working BBC Symphony Chorus. Olly wasn't wrong about it being hard to sing: they already have their hands full just trying to pitch their notes from various instruments in the orchestra.We move on to the purely orchestral pieces and let chorus master Stephen Jackson add his finishing touches to the chorus in another room.

There's a tricky passage in Fraternite - 'Could we just cover from Figure 32 again please Olly?' asks the Principal viola. 'You mean my circus-act bit?' he says referring to the place where he conducts in five with his left hand whilst doing four with his right. No mean feat, the conducting equivalent of rubbing your tummy whilst patting your head. We play through the bit once again and it goes better than it's ever done. I'm instinctively worried and so it turns out is Olly: 'That was too good,' I say. 'Yes,' he replies, 'we should have left it for the concert!' But that's the thing with rehearsals ... one can reach a peak and then the only way is down! It's a fine line and you seldom know when you are going to cross it.


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Henze - the UK premiere of Elogium musicum

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 20:23 UK time, Sunday, 17 January 2010

henze_and_fausto_moroni.jpgWhen it comes to something which is completely new - the UK premiere of Elogium musicum - where to start with a new piece entering one's ears?    A quick read of the programme notes is always a good start:  in particular the information that the piece was provoked by the tragic death of Henze's long time life-partner Fausto Moroni.  But also the fact that it is written in Latin - not liturgical Latin text, but to a libretto especially commissioned by Henze from Latin scholar Franco Serpa.  

It certainly helps a lot too if one is at the performance and able to watch such an expressive conductor as Oliver Knussen at work, his gestures may often be small but  they communicate so much.  However, as in Henze's operas, I found that for me the key to gaining a rapid understanding of this incredibly moving and passionate music was to follow the text itself in the programme.  There's so much word-painting - for example in the first section entitled Falcons where Henze likens his unexpected bereavement to a pair of falcons in the sky, one of them suddenly being struck down in its prime.  The music soars, swoops with the power of these birds and then one feels the immense shock and pain as one bird dies and crashes into the ground.  It's so vivid, so accessible and almost painful to listen to in the depth of despair and tragedy it conveys. 

Then, in the 2nd movement the spiky orchestration underlying such words as (in translation) 'vultures, dark crows, black menacing monsters' generates the anger of the music, mirroring the anger of the personal loss. Interestingly, much of the writing for the BBCSO Chorus is almost renaissance in style, (perhaps fitting with a Latin text?), very chord-like, often in unison and vertical in texture with little use of polyphony or contrapuntal elements.  

  • The picture shows Hans Werner Henze (l) and his life-partner, the late Fausto Moroni, in whose memory Henze composed Elogium musicum.

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Henze's Requiem - Nine Sacred Concertos

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 16:58 UK time, Sunday, 17 January 2010

the_late_Michael_Vyner.jpgThe film Requiem - 9 Sacred Concertos - shown as part of the Henze - Total Immersion weekend at the Barbican - contained what was perhaps certainly for me the thorniest and most intense music of the day.  Certainly, the deep emotion of the score was evident right from the start and since it was written in memoriam of Michael Vyner of the London Sinfonietta there was obviously a great deal of intensity and loss felt in the music. 

There's no chorus in this Requiem, nor any text, instead Henze has taken the movement format of the genre, albeit it not in traditional order and used it to construct nine 'concertos' which cleverly contain elements of the traditional orchestral elements of the requiem. Perhaps the fact that for me the filming of the orchestra (Ensemble Modern of Frankfurt under Ingo Metzmacher's direction with solo trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger and solo pianist Ueli Wiget) was not as slick as one might expect, this rather diminished the overall impression I was left of the music in general.  Perhaps it would have had a deeper effect if I had simply been listening to the score rather than being confronted with some at times rather ineffective editing of the musicians playing on screen.  

But I have to say that I want to get a recording of the Requiem and try to listen again and understand more of the complexity of this immense and heartfelt work.   One interesting factor which did strike me was how there seemed to be an apotheosis at the end of the Sanctus.  Suddenly it was as if light had shone through the clouds, and the discordant feel of the orchestra dissolved into a proclamation of a positive conclusion.   Fascinating music expressing strong emotions and no doubting the virtuosity of both Hardenberger and Wiget, but I wasn't particularly endeared by the production values of the film.  There's something a bit wrong when you can hear a violin solo, but see only the accompaniment...

  • Michael Vyner was musical director of the London Sinfonietta from 1972 until his death in 1989. He was enormously influential in the promotion of new music in the United Kingdom, and commissioned numerous works for the Sinfonietta from an eclectic group of composers; he worked tirelessly to encourage young composers. The photo is by Bo Lutoslawski 

Henze as composer for piano

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 23:46 UK time, Saturday, 16 January 2010

The highlight of today's music-packed programme was always going to be the premiere of Henze's Elogium musicum.  My fellow blogger violist Phil Hall had already provided an insider's glimpse of how one prepares a new work and I hope he will be providing some insight into the experience of actually performing a premiere after all the hard slog of rehearsal.  But right now it is time for me to provide the view from the stalls when it comes to hearing something for the very first time.

huw_watkins.jpgHowever, in this long evening programme there were other gems to get to know and appreciate, so I'll divide this blog into two. The first section of the concert was devoted to Huw Watkins playing four of Henze's compositions for solo piano, music new to me.  One big advantage of having such an accomplished pianist as Mr Watkins as the soloist is the sparkling clarity he brings to often extremely heavy and complex keyboard writing, I loved the way I could hear right into the texture of the music and I wonder whether the fact that Mr Watkins is also a composer played a part in how he carefully brought out the salient thematic aspects, enabling one to instantly gain a good grasp of the structure of the musical structure.   It was revealing to read in the programme that Henze has referred to Mozart and Bellini as sources of his singing keyboard style - especially noticeable in the witty and also sensual tribute to Mozart's unforgettable operatic creation, Cherubino.   But for me the most intense journey into Henze's piano sound world came with his Scorribanda pianistica - a real tempest of a work requiring all the virtuosity of Huw Watkins and played with élan and virility - an exciting performance! I was actually surprised how much I got out of this first part of the evening and will look forward to hearing this stimulating display of musicality and pianism on BBC Radio 3 later this spring.

It was great to see Hans Werner Henze in the audience, showing heartfelt appreciation for Mr Watkins' performance and in turn receiving much applause from the audience, there's no doubt that it makes the atmosphere of a concert something special when you know such an eminent composer is 'in the house'.

But before moving on to the orchestral part of the evening, I know the whole question of applause is a controversial one for R3 listeners causing much debate and general angst.  But here we go again:  I wonder if it is really necessary for someone to start applauding the microsecond that Mr Watkins ends each piece?   Can't you give the guy a couple of seconds to take his hands off the keyboard so those of us who want to savour the music's climax can enjoy a second of silence before showing our appreciation?   I discovered later that Oliver Knussen had an excellent modus operandi to stop this annoying audience habit... good for him! 

oliver_knussen2.jpgHenze's Fraternité - air pour l'orchestre was perhaps the least substantial part of the BBCSO's contribution to this concert, yet it provided another insight into Henze's personal philosophy with the underlying sense of the music striving for the 'Brotherhood' of the title, but the use of dissonance suggested it could be a hard journey to take.  This was a piece which I'd like to hear again, Oliver Knussen's exceptionally precise and clear conducting, bringing out the salient lines of the music was most impressive, but for me it needed another hearing.

The 4th Symphony by Henze dates from 1955 and was given a fine performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Again much of this was due to Oliver Knussen's conducting.  It helps a lot when a conductor can negotiate a way for the listener in this frequently dense score.   You need someone to provide a guiding light and as a listener, I find that when confronted with music with which I am not overly familiar - as in this symphony, it can help a great deal to observe the conductor closely.  This is especially so when it comes to something which is completely new - the UK premiere of Elogium musicum  - where to start with a new piece entering one's ears? More on that in a further blog ... 

Henze - Voices

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 23:12 UK time, Saturday, 16 January 2010

Guildhall New Music Ensemble conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth

The first live event of this Henze Total Immersion weekend was eagerly awaited and certainly lived up to expectations.  Ryan Wigglesworth conducted the Guildhall New Music Ensemble and an excellent selection of student singers from the Guildhall.
My very first impression was that despite having been composed in 1973, how incredibly relevant this composition is to the 21st century Zeitgeist.  In some ways their resonance has only increased further as one sadly realises how little change there has been in the social and political climate in which Henze composed the 22 songs which make up the work. In particular those songs relating to war and man's inhumanity towards man.
For me that was perhaps the most surprising and powerful aspect of this performance, it really did underline how astute Henze's choice of texts was at the time.
Ryan Wigglesworth directed the diverse ensemble of instruments (huge percussion section for starters) with his customary precision and flair.  I was impressed at the versatility required from the players - violinists required to double on violas, the concertmaster to even have a quick spin on mandolin!  Impeccable musicianship was demonstrated by all in this complex and frequently virtuosic music.
sioned_gwen_davies.jpgWith the limited time I have to quickly type up this blog, I have to pick out a couple of outstanding moments from the performance, I'm hoping to return later to post some more in-depth thoughts.  The song which perhaps made the most immediate and tangible hit with the highly appreciative audience was 'The Electric Cop' - a bitingly witty dissection of all that is bad about American television.  The lyrics may have been written by Victor Hernandez Cruz back in the 1970s but Celebrity Big Brother and other excruciating shows around today make it even more valid in 2010!  Wonderfully sung and acted by tenor Nicholas Allen - loved the popping balloons!  The other performer who notably relished Henze's  demanding vocal writing was the mezzo-soprano Sioned Gwen Davies who especially excelled in Screams (Interlude) along with her participation in several duets, most definitely an artist to look out for in the future.
The 90 minutes of this work passed by in a flash, it was such a totally committed and engaging performance by everyone involved - Bravo! - which I wanted to hear again as soon as it had finished and which I highly recommend listening to when it is broadcast in the near future on BBC Radio 3.

Memoirs of an Outsider - Hans Werner Henze film

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 13:29 UK time, Saturday, 16 January 2010

metronome.jpgWhat an evocative way to start off this Henze Total Immersion weekend here at the Barbican Centre in London!  I believe that 'Memoirs of an Outsider' produced by the ever reliable Barrie Gavin, is one of the best composer documentaries that I have seen for quite a while, and it certainly - in my view - managed to capture the essence of the complex and fascinating character of Hans Werner Henze. 

Perhaps the best aspect of the film was how seamlessly it combined narrative on Henze's life;  Henze in his own words; notable interpreters of his music such as Sir Simon Rattle, Oliver Knussen and Marcus Stenz along with copious and imaginatively chosen excerpts from his works.  It really provided an intense insight into the man, his compositions and their interpretations.

There was one particularly telling comment which Henze made during the film; he stressed how he had always felt a 'Sehnsucht nach Musik' - 'a longing for Music' and how important music was to his whole existence.  He comes over as someone who is totally passionate and committed to his art and also perhaps to living life as a whole, the film focussed a great deal on the peaceful rural retreat of his Italian house and garden, but did not shy away from dealing with his political and philosophical views - the Nazi regime, his departure from Germany to Italy, his joining of the Italian Communist Party, his views of the social unrest in the late 60s... yet I appreciated the way in which this was always tied up with apt choice of music, reinforcing the strength of his personal opinions. 

We gained a tantalising glimpse of Henze composing, a metronome beating by his side in an extremely peaceful looking study.   He gave a few cryptic comments during discussions with Oliver Knussen relating to the process of composing - how he always looks forward, how the music is all in the brain, how the music only comes from within itself. 

Unfortunately time waits for no man (or violinist!) and I have to find my way to the main hall to catch some of Britain's most talented music students in action in their contribution to this Henze Total Immersion Day.  But I want to return with more thoughts on this excellent film a bit later, it has made a huge impact on me and will undoubtedly be colouring my views of the music still to be performed today.


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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 16:41 UK time, Friday, 15 January 2010

hbp.jpg10.35 and still no conductor....It's a big orchestra assembled for the first rehearsal of Henze's new cantata, Elogium Musicum and there's a lot of restless warming-up type sounds. Eventually Olly Knussen arrives and climbs on to his stool but not before taking a swig out of his ubiquitous diet coke bottle which a member of the management has thoughtfully placed next to the podium. 'Sorry I'm late... I got stuck somewhere.' Olly vaguely tells us. He then proceeds to say a few words about the new piece (mainly that it is difficult for the chorus but not too bad for us) and with a cheery 'here we go' he brings down his baton.

Now one of the attractions of playing a brand new piece is that, with the exception of the conductor, nobody knows what is coming next.

Today, however, the boot is on the other foot as there is a rather nice tradition in the BBCSO of playing Happy Birthday to its members on the first downbeat of the rehearsal. Word is secretly passed round the band but not to the unsuspecting conductor who is inevitably caught out, especially when they are expecting a gentle start to a piece. Yesterday it was my turn to be serenaded and as the band rendered Happy Birthday in the style of Henze, I reflected on how much more lyrical it was than when they played it to me last year (Stockhausen) or on my 40th (Elliot Carter). Hopefully one January we'll be playing Vaughan Williams or my personal favourite, Janáček.

Olly joins in conducting it with aplomb.

Carefully we unravel the new work and we play through to the end of the first movement then go back to the beginning. There are quite a few unusual instruments - Wagner Tuba, bass trumpet, alto flute and, amongst other goodies, a sistra in the percussion department. Olly tries to tune a few chords with some of them: 'Sorry to be sadistic, but can I have the alto flute and third bassoon, you are meant to be in unison...' They try again and mend the intonation. Then he starts on the Wagner Tuba (a pretty unstable instrument at the best of times) before moving on to the bass trumpet player whom he moves so he can be heard better.

We crawl through each movement stopping and starting until all four movements have been covered. There's an interesting logistical problem at the end of one movement - the first two trumpets have only a single bar in which they must go and play offstage. Only the USS Enterprise's Transporter could manage that feat within the space of a few seconds, so some head-scratching ensues: 'Maybe you could use mutes and point the trumpets at the floor, or turn your backs to the public,' Olly suggests. Andrew Haveron, the leader, tries to help, asking if the Barbican stage has a trap door through which they could descend... it's rapidly getting silly and therefore time for a coffee break and birthday cake, courtesy of the vola section.


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Ian McMillan Ian McMillan | 03:49 UK time, Friday, 15 January 2010

Well, The Verb's hit the ground running at the start of the new year and the start (depending how you count) if the new decade. On this week's show we've got a marvellous new poem Simon by Barraclough marking the passing of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the last survivor of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki; he was on a business trip in Hiroshima when the first bomb dropped, was badly burned and taken home to Nagasaki when the second bomb fell; as the mayor of Nagasaki said. 'we have lost a great storyteller'.

We've also got new work from a new writer: Darrell Lloyd. He's won a number of Verb competitions in the past, including last year's one based on the Radio 3 Composers of the Year that Rob Cowan and I judged. I like Darrell's work very much; he writes tiny short stories that have an odd, unworldly feel. They feel European, somehow, as though a writer like Kafka might be one his guiding influences, although he names American writers like John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver as the ones he turns to.

anton-chekhov.jpgWe've a new competition, too, based on Radio 3's Chekhov season. We want people to write a story of not more than 1000 words, taking one of three of Chekhov's story titles as a jumping-off point. The titles are The Lady with the Dog, The Lottery Ticket, and Difficult People. The stories don't have to be Chekhovian, and they don't have to have the same characters as the original. The titles are just a free gift, a bit of inspiration to get people going.

I wonder if the competition will turn up a new writer as good as Darrell Lloyd ? I hope so: that's part of the Verb's mission, to uncover and promote the new and exciting, as well as the long-established... 

Henze - a view from the stalls

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Rosalind Porter Rosalind Porter | 03:34 UK time, Friday, 15 January 2010

Hello, I'm Rosalind Porter and I am about to dive head first into the Total Immersion Henze Weekend.   My background is in classical music, (you may have read my most recent blogs from the Free Thinking Festival) and I hope my posts will provide some thoughts from a BBC R3 listener's perspective during the next couple of days

elagabalus.jpgOne of the first contemporary scores which I encountered during my training as an orchestral violinist was Hans Werner Henze's Heliogabalus Imperator - so it was quite an unexpected coincidence to read that this was also the initial Henze experience for my fellow blogger, BBCSO sub-principal violist Phil Hall.   This exotically provocative score, vividly chronicling the outré lifestyle and ultimately sticky end of a young Roman Emperor ( certainly whetted my enduring appetite for exploring Henze's compositions; what a pity that Heliogabalus is so rarely - if ever - played these days.

There has been a considerable amount written about Hans Werner Henze's political and cultural ideology.  While preparing for this weekend I've found myself wondering how much one realistically needs to be aware of these complex issues when considering his compositions as a listener.  If I approach the works being performed this weekend simply through the actual music, is my listening experience somehow less valid than someone who assimilates the complexity of the composer's philosophy together with the music?    It should be fascinating to watch Memoirs of an Outsider - a film dealing with Henze's life; could it radically alter my perception of his music?

Whether one is an orchestral musician or a member of the audience, the first performance of a new work is always an exciting occasion.  There are two UK premieres during the Immersion Weekend and it seems an excellent opportunity to consider how we, as listeners, approach hearing a piece of music for the very first time.  Perhaps blog readers might contribute their thoughts on this? 

I can hardly wait for Saturday!


Snow joke at Maida Vale

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 23:43 UK time, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

oliver_knussen.jpg'Wednesday's rehearsal will now be strings only.' The text message from the Assistant Orchestra Manager said. 'Oh, deep joy....' was the response from my fiddle-playing drinking companion as we looked at each other over our pints and pinging mobile phones. Truth is, string sectionals are actually quite useful, not just because we viola players need extra help but also so we can configure and synchronise bowings and sort out the inevitable tricky bits this orchestra seems to delight in. The downside is that they can leave one a lot more exposed as there is no 'covering fire' from our colleagues who blow and bang things.

My day had already started badly: the shower refused to work, my 10-year-old daughter burst into tears because she didn't want to go to school and due to all the fluffy white stuff falling from the sky, Southeast Trains were being awkward. I shivered in to BBC Studio 1 Maida Vale at 11 o'clock for a 10.30 start. Now it's pretty much the first thing one learns at college is that you can't be late for a rehearsal, but being the insane optimist that I am, I work on the principle that if I am late somebody else will be too and it won't be so bad. I was only partly wrong - the Principal viola was also stuck.

Now when that happens the next in line shuffles up to fill the gap and so on down the line, (all very hierarchal, rather like the Army). So, as I defrost I am hastily looking through the part to see if there are any four-letter words (that's 'Solo') that I need to look at. Beside me now sits our new No.4 violist, Carol Ella. (Carol is great fun and has a thing about turnips... don't ask me why). A decision is made to delay the start of the rehearsal.

Oliver Knussen is conducting and is quite relaxed as further stragglers enter the studio. Like his compositions he is an incredibly fastidious conductor with acute hearing. I'd say that along with Pierre Boulez and George Benjamin he's got some of the best lugs in the business. That means he doesn't miss a trick and he searches continually for the right colour and balance... and also the right notes! Olly has had a long association with the orchestra - both his father and brother were once members of the double bass section and last year he became our Artist-in-Association. We have always enjoyed playing his finely-honed pieces and the many (if on occasion rather esoteric) concerts he has put on with us. He holds the orchestra in high esteem and is seldom without humour - 'Could the violas try and make it sound less like a dog grabbing a bone?' he asks respectfully. 'This bit sounds like Les Dawson playing Strauss..." My 10-year-old also likes him, but only because she thought it was Hagrid conducting us on TV.

Henze generally writes extremely well for the orchestra; only for some reason best known to himself, I suspect that, sometime in the 1970s, he decided to change the way he notates his music. Instead of having accidentals (sharps and flats) pertaining throughout the whole bar, they apply only to each individual note. This means that if, for example, he writes a string of repeated semiquaver E flats, he writes a flat sign in front of each semiquaver. That can leave a bar with more flats than a Peckham Council Estate and, frankly, it's confuse-a-cat time for the player.

Add to that, that it's different to the system we all know and love, and you can have a few problems reading the dots. Well, even more problems... Maybe when Hans turns up this weekend I'll pluck up the courage to ask him why he does it.

Gradually, the unfamiliar notes become more familiar and the string lines emerge, the co-principal viola arrives in time to play the solos, and the day is salvaged. I leave the studio wondering how the piece will sound with our wind and percussion colleagues and also if Southeast Trains are working... they aren't. I look around a deserted London Bridge station for someone to blame, then I notice today is the 13th... that'll do.

  • Phil Hall is sub-principal viola of the BBC Symphony Orchestra 


Henze - A view from inside the BBC Symphony Orchestra

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 14:35 UK time, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

henze_bbc_240.jpgAs the first BBC Symphony Orchestra mole to peep out blinking from the Maida Vale bunker it falls to me to welcome you to our first blog. Hopefully I won't be the only one from within ranks of the orchestra to share a little of the goings on with you.

First things first, I'm the mop-haired, (hyphen-loving) sub-principal violist Phil Hall. This is my 19th year with the orchestra (I know, I know, with good behaviour I could have been out by now) and I usually spend my days on the front desk sitting with the elegantly coiffured co-principal Caroline Harrison or the rather anarchically tressed Norbert Blume, our esteemed Principal. I have been charged to provide some insights into our latest project: Total Immersion - the music of Hans Werner Henze.

For the last 20 or so years the BBCSO devoted an entire weekend in the middle of January  to a featured composer. Recent seasons focused on Elliot Carter, Messiaen, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Weill. From Friday through to Sunday night their oeuvres were investigated via film, discussion, chamber, orchestral and semi-staged operatic performances. Usually it was quite an undertaking for the orchestra; I particularly remember the John Adams weekend having more notes than the Bank of England and my brain being fried by no fewer than six pieces of Alban Berg in one concert. By and large, 'though, the total immersion technique proved popular with audiences and critics alike and very often we too in the orchestra discovered new gems. Sometimes we even emerged still liking the composer!


The thought of an entire concert of contemporary German music  may have some punters running for the Ausgang, but I've always had a soft spot for Henze since playing his lush ultra Romantic tone poem 'Heliogabalus Imperator' in the BBC Philharmonic years ago. 'It's like Richard Strauss on acid,' a fiddle-player remarked. He writes with such a vivid orchestral palette that there is always something to enjoy playing. This weekend we'll be tackling his 4th Symphony, Fraternité and the first UK performance of Elogium Musicum, Henze's tribute to his late partner.

We start rehearsals today. I'll keep you posted.

  • Starting on Friday, Phil's blog posts will be complemented by posts from Radio 3 listener-blogger Rosalind Porter, who'll be in the audience for the whole event.
  • Full details of Hans Werner - Total Immersion are available by clicking this link
  • You can hear the Henze works Phil mentions above in Performance on 3 on BBC Radio, Monday 18 January at 7pm
  • The picture above is from the BBC Archive - it shows Chester Kallman, W. H. Auden and Hans Werner Henze. On July 13th, 1961 at 9.30 p.m. in the BBC Third Programme, Chester Kallman, W. H. Auden and Hans Werner Henze discussed their opera 'Elegy for Young Lovers', which was broadcast from Glyndebourne on Saturday, July 15th, 1961 

My Handel Year - Looking Back

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Suzanne Aspden Suzanne Aspden | 12:04 UK time, Friday, 8 January 2010

handel_talk_at_the_proms.jpgAs the Christmas/New Year leftovers diminish (and so too, one hopes, the Christmas/New Year waistline), and we endeavour to return to the routine even amidst snow and ice, it's hard not to feel that last year was a long time ago.  But certain musical memories from the fabulous past year of our four great composers remain fresh.  Perhaps the freshest are those that came at the time as a surprise or revelation - when we learned something, in other words.

Any teacher will know the educational truism that we learn best by doing, and so the 'learning' moments of the past year that spring most readily to my mind are those in which I was actively involved.  One that so struck me, I subsequently used it in my lectures at Oxford, was the process of going round London recording snippets about Handel's life for Radio 3's participation in the EBU Handel day.  The idea was to record a few minutes' commentary 'on location' about places that Handel would once have visited; we recorded over two days, and got to almost all our locations on foot - and that was the eye opener, because, as tube-travelling denizens of the modern city, we don't realise just how close the important bits of Old London were to one another. To be able to walk from Handel's house on Brook Street to the Earl of Burlington's palace on Piccadilly in just 10 minutes, on to the site of the opera house in another 7, the royal residences in yet a few more ... all that impressed forcibly the sense of intimacy 18th-century London must have held - like a very large village.  That, certainly, was a great learning experience for me, and I was delighted that the BBC took the trouble to put up a map of the city c.1750 with the locations of the various places we visited marked, so that others could follow the route too. 

The EBU concerts themselves were also ear-openers: it was terrific to hear the stylistic variety of performances from around Europe - despite the seeming uniformity and ubiquity of the 'early music' sound on our CD shelves, there's still a great deal of room for individuality, and even regional variety, as the performances made clear.

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Haydn - a creative man for all seasons

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Denis McCaldin Denis McCaldin | 16:51 UK time, Thursday, 7 January 2010

Professor-Denis-McCaldin.jpgNow that 2009 is a thing of the past, I'd just like to thank everyone who has contributed to the COTY blogs and particularly to the Haydn aficionados.  Each blogsite has produced its own style and supporters, and now seems the moment to thank everyone involved.

There can't be many friends who, whatever our mood, always have something rewarding to say to us.   Someone whose greatness as a composer doesn't stop him from being good company as well.  We have only to read Haydn's vivid comments in his London Notebooks, to feel he must have been tremendously good company.   Although he was undoubtedly a master musician, he never seems to have set himself apart from the rest of us, as Berlioz and Wagner often did.  To say that he is more like 'one of us' is not to devalue his great talent, but rather to enjoy the fact that he created extraordinary works from quite ordinary circumstances.  Like Bach and Handel before him, he produced a vast and varied amount of music.  The ability to get on with the job and find endless variety through the application of their craft was something all three composers shared.   In Haydn's case, there was no significant genre of classical music that he didn't explore and develop.  And the freshness of his invention means that he remains a composer for all moods and all seasons to this day.  

  • With The Seven Last Words and The Creation, we come closest to sharing his deep faith and spiritualty.  
  • His string quartets and piano trios fulfil at least two functions for us.  They chart a path away from vocal music, which had been the predominant genre in the preceding Baroque era.  But they also provide the foundation stone of the rich literature of chamber music that was to follow.
  • To say, as some critics do, that Haydn lacks talent as a composer of dramatic music is surely too dismissive.  I doubt if many music lovers can forget the first time they heard the Trumpet Concerto - a wonderfully extrovert piece that is still one of the defining works of the repertoire.  In the case of the operas, we know there's a lot of fine music to be enjoyed in those scores composed for Esterhaza.  Fifty years ago people said Handel operas were unstageable - now we think differently.  Perhaps it's time to think about doing the same kind of thing for Haydn.
  • To follow the changes of style and content in the symphonies is to see something else remarkable.  From the exuberance of Le Matin, Le Midi, Le Soir, through to the darker moods of the Trauer and La Passione is striking enough.  But then to follow on with the riches of the Paris and London symphonies is a truly magnificent achievement.
  • For the Austrian state he wrote a national anthem, while for his friends and colleagues he composed piano sonatas and divertimenti.

I think the French portrait painter Jean Ingres was right when he said, 'Whoever studies music, let his daily bread be Haydn.  Beethoven is indeed admirable, he is incomparable, but he has not the same usefulness as Haydn: he is not a necessity...'  So, as bread is a food for all seasons, so surely is Haydn's music.  Viva Haydn!


What I've learnt about Henry Purcell...

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 14:39 UK time, Monday, 4 January 2010

making_music_in_a_tavern.jpgAs Radio 3's Purcell Blogger this year, I learnt much from reading Bruce Wood's brilliant new biography, An Extraordinary Life.* Although there emerged no new facts directly relating to Purcell's life (scholars still seek confirmation of his year of birth, for instance), Wood's research goes deeper and further into secondary events than ever before, drawing us into so vivid a picture of Restoration Britain that we can practically hear Gostling's fabulous bass voice echo down the nave at Westminster Abbey in the pieces Purcell wrote for him, or catch a faint trace of the smell of grease-paint and candlewax in the bursting theatres of London's nightlife and Purcell's secular employment.

With great clarity, Wood brings home to us how close we came to losing the priceless tradition of church and cathedral choirs as a result of their abolition during the decade of the Commonwealth. A generation of choristers was lost and choirmasters had to work hard to build choirs up from nothing, with no older boys to pass on experience to the young and every piece of music new repertoire. It might so easily have gone for good. Wood gives a particularly touching portrait of Captain Henry Cooke, in charge at the Chapel Royal, making full use of his prerogative to scour the country and press-gang the best boys into royal service. At least by the time Purcell arrived as a chorister in the late 1670s, he already had the example of John Blow and Pelham Humfrey to follow - or in the latter case not to follow. Wood is amusing on the foppish tendencies of the arrogant, spoilt Humfrey who so upset Pepys.

Wood devotes some consideration to the peculiarly English tradition of the verse anthem and one comes to suspect that this form of music alone contributed greatly to the choirs' survival. Begun by Morley and perfected by Gibbons, it represented a bridge to the past when taken up with even greater success by Purcell. As a work for soloists and chorus, it panders to the singers' view of themselves as individual stars and encourages competition among the singers for the leading roles. Often written with particular singers in mind, it becomes primarily a vehicle for choir amusement and secondly a tool for worship. The verse anthem celebrates the choir for its own sake and makes it less subservient to the church. It is chiefly, but not exclusively, a feature of Evensong, an Anglican form of service focused on the choir with neither of the unpopular elements of religious devotion - no sermon or collection. A convincing case is to be made for the Purcellian verse anthem as the salvation of the English choral tradition when continental versions failed, in many cases never to be revived.

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