Archives for September 2011

Maestro Runnicles extends contract with the BBC Scottish SO

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Gavin Reid BBC SSO Gavin Reid BBC SSO | 16:29 UK time, Thursday, 29 September 2011

Photo of Donald Runnicles rehearsing the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Donald Runnicles rehearsing the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

What a week for everyone at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra! Not content with ensuring the new concert season gets off to a flyer this evening – the Scottish premiere of James MacMillan’s monumental St John Passion, with the London Symphony Chorus, BBC Singers, baritone Mark Stone and presenter Jamie MacDougall, live on Radio 3 (and that’s just the first of three concerts this week!) – we’ve taken the opportunity of announcing that our Chief Conductor Donald Runnicles is extending his contract with us through 2015.

Many people said it was a coup for us when we first announced he was joining us a couple of years ago and rather nicely, that’s been mentioned again this week. As I said in the press release, to say I’m thrilled is something of an understatement. 

There is clearly something remarkable happening when Donald conducts this orchestra, but musical excellence is certainly not something new to the BBC SSO – through the good offices of my predecessors, this orchestra enjoys a fine reputation for picking the right players and the right conductors and there have been years of extraordinary performances. So what’s happening that is so special now?

Well for starters, Donald is one of a team of amazing conductors we have – Ilan Volkov, Andrew Manze and Matthias Pintscher – all of whom complement each other beautifully in terms of repertoire, all of whom are masters of their trade.

As far as Donald is concerned, his qualities go way beyond what you might simply call 'conducting'. They go beyond interpretative insight, wisdom and experience – although it goes without saying he has bucket loads of them all. Much more than this, he’s an enabler, a nurturer – a leader who instils the greatest trust in the musicians he’s making music with, allowing them fully to express themselves, to take the greatest musical risks – in the spirit of the Olympic ideal, to go beyond 'personal best'.

So what can we expect over the next few years? Well, without giving away all those highly guarded secrets – actually we haven’t planned it all yet – it would be surprising and perhaps a little disappointing if we didn’t continue to present the great Romantic scores and didn’t continue to invite some of the world’s greatest singers as well as instrumentalists to join us.

I may be slightly biased – forgive me – but I do think this is one of the most important partnerships in the musical world today and it’s still only Year 2 – it’s an exciting time.

Gavin Reid is Director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

 

 

 

 

Notes from a composer, Part 5 - Found Objects

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 16:16 UK time, Thursday, 22 September 2011

 

Part of the Found Objects manuscript

Part of the Found Objects manuscript

Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his fifth post explaining the process and his thoughts along the way.

Actually I’m still not sure if 'Found Objects' is the title of the second movement! It feels a touch cold for my taste – so I’m continuing to consider. But certainly the resonance of the piece is that: a collection of different musical objects, from a variety of sources, including at least 10 quotations from the compositions of others.

What’s my expressive reason for doing this? In my last blog I said something about reflecting our plural world. But it’s not just a portrayal for me of what happens if you channel hop. Indeed it’s not really that at all. It’s much more to do with our internal plural worlds, the way our minds (and hearts) hop from idea to idea, from feeling to feeling, one object eliding with or juxtaposing with another, one thought or memory reminding one of another. And I’m aware too of how quickly these leaps can happen. I have another image too for this piece: and it’s of someone opening an old chest of objects, and out pop half-forgotten objects, some of great sentimental value.

So what ties these objects together is in many ways no more than my own personal taste – a chord from Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments rubs shoulders with a snatch of Cantaloube’s Songs from the Auvergne, the hopeful innocence of Mahler 1 elides with Bach’s Cantata of resignation Ich habe genug, which in turn falls back into late Mahler, the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde. Later in the piece, the opening of Berg’s Violin Concerto slides into the start of Ravel’s Mother Goose. Most of the quotations are classical, but I leave room for a moment from The Sound of Music: My Favourite Things.

And the found objects are not all just actual quotations: I’ve also taken familiar bits of musical vocabulary – a triad, a bit of a scale, a snatch of a tune – and tried to find ways, for example through unusual voicings, or extreme highs and lows of register or sudden, unexpected shifts of orchestral colour and texture, for these objects to be heard anew.

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Ian McMillan hails The Verb's new season

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Ian McMillan Ian McMillan | 12:11 UK time, Thursday, 15 September 2011

Saltcoats picture montage by Ruth Cowan

 

I love the fact that The Verb goes in seasons, from September to July, almost like the football season but with a few added weeks of delight; and once July becomes August I’m in full pre-season training, the books are arriving in jiffy bags, the ideas are flowing and I’m in the players’ tunnel and raring to go.

And now suddenly we’re halfway through September and the first programme is upon us. This Autumn in going to be a really exciting one for The Verb: we’re off to Freethinking in November of course and I can’t wait to get into the Sage in Gateshead and get to grips with all that thinking and all that talking and all those chance encounters in the café: ‘Ian, meet this bishop and that poet and this philosopher; teas all round!’

The Verb’s also on the road in October presenting special shows from venues in Stockton on Tees, Birmingham and Norwich, showcasing six writers from our Verb New Voices scheme; at each of the shows, two of the writers will be performing brand new pieces written specially for us and developed over the summer with the help of mentors. It’s like the New Generation Artists with ink, like the New Generation Thinkers with rhyme schemes.

And now it’s time to write the script and think about the questions for the first show; we’ve got a new piece from Janice Galloway, whose new memoir All Made Up details life in 1970s Saltcoats, a discussion about translation with master-translator (who avers that it’s an illusion that language consists of things called words) David Bellos, a couple of works-in-progress from our Verb New Voices, and performance from Mike Scott of the Waterboys; for the last twenty years he’s been working on making songs from the poems of WB Yeats and the results are amazing and astonishingly moving. His rendition of the lines ‘The silver apples of the moon’ almost reduced me to tears.

And you can’t have tears too early in a season, can you? Or can you?

All about the 'Hear and Now Fifty'

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Felix Carey Felix Carey | 15:03 UK time, Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Photo of Katie Mitchell's production Nono's Al gran sole carico d'amore in Berlin

Katie Mitchell's production Nono's Al gran sole carico d'amore in Berlin

Radio 3 Producer Felix Carey introdues a fascinating new series on Radio 3

For the last few months I've been recording, editing and compiling material for the Hear and Now Fifty. This will be a regular feature in Radio 3's new music programme Hear and Now, and will also be made available as a collectable new podcast

The idea of the series is to celebrate the music of the late 20th-century and those works that helped pave the way to the contemporary classical music of today.  We’re inviting 50 people from the world of new music and the arts to nominate and advocate works by 50 composers, written over the 50 year period between 1950 and 2000.  Not having more than one work by any one composer has resulted in an intriguing list that reflects the personal interests and experiences of our contributors as much as it does the variety of composition over those 50 years. 

So, in the coming months you’ll be able hear the artist Tacita Dean reflecting on John Cage's notorious 4'33", the inspiration for her collaboration with Cage's choreographer partner Merce Cunningham; film-maker Sophie Fiennes on why she used Ligeti's Atmospheres in her documentary about German artist Anselm Kiefer; novelist Mark Haddon reveals his passion for the string quartets of Elliott Carter; mathematician and code-breaker Marcus de Sautoy takes us inside the complex work of Iannis Xenakis; and director Katie Mitchell describes her encounter with the monumental music theatre of Luigi Nono, ahead of the revival of her own production of Al gran sole carico d'amore in Berlin next March.

And we have the inside perspective from the musicians and composers themselves and the works they admire: Howard Skempton on Morton Feldman, John Tilbury on Cornelius Cardew, Sir Harrison Birtwistle on Pierre Boulez, Ethan Iverson on Milton Babbitt.  We hear how George Crumb's Black Angels was the reason why violinist David Harrington started the Kronos Quartet, and why Edgard Varese's late work Poeme electronique has been so important to New York art-rocker Tyondai Braxton in his pursuit of new sounds. 

The music will range from recognised landmarks such as Stockhausen's Gruppen for 3 orchestras to lesser known gems such as Takemitsu's filmscore for the Masaki Kobayashi chiller Kwaidan (the latter unearthed for us by the musician and writer David Toop). 

And to help put these works in historical context we have commentaries from the critic and writer Paul Griffiths and the South Bank's Head of Contemporary Culture, Gillian Moore, among others.  Following the feature in each edition of Hear and Now you will hear the work in its entirety, or in the case of very long works, a substantial part of it. 

In the first programme this Saturday 17th September, electronic music producer Matthew Herbert talks about Steve Reich's Different Trains, his 1988 piece for string quartet and tape, based on train journeys experienced before, during and after the Second World War.  'For me it was like a kick-start into the wider world,' says Herbert, 'to look for important stories within my own life or in the world around me that I saw.' 

There will be a podcast called Radio 3's Fifty Modern Classics and you can subscribe here.

 

Our BBC Symphony Orchestra blogger says listen to tonight's Birtwistle premiere ...

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 16:32 UK time, Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Photo of Sir Harrison Birtwistle c.BBC

Sir Harrison Birtwistle (photo copyright BBC)

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall with the inside track on tonight's Proms premiere ...

The BBC Symphony Orchestra is no stranger to giving premiere performances of new works.  I would say over 50% of our concerts contain new pieces. Tonight we'll be playing the UK premiere of veteran English modernist Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Violin Concerto with the indefatigable German violinist Christian Tetzlaff. He gets off relatively lightly this time since when he gave the world premiere in Boston earlier this year he sandwiched it between concertos by Mozart and Bartok.

This is the first time Harry (as he's universally known) has called a composition 'Concerto' and I find it to be one of his more soft-edged pieces, almost lyrical at times but with plenty of mood changes. His main concern was that the soloist could be heard throughout against the orchestra. To which end, despite a score that looks complex and dense at first sight, the piece is actually fairly lightly scored. His skill is in being ultra-precise with the dynamics and thinning out textures. Sure he has multi-divided strings (which causes much ink on the page) but often we play chords in harmonics or in hushed dynamics without vibrato.

There is a small group of soloists within the orchestra who take it in turn to duet with the soloist: cello, bassoon, flute, piccolo and oboe. Rehearsing the piece with David Robertson (who has some challenging unconventional bars to conduct) he reports that the composer envisaged those players stepping forward and standing next to the soloist...but that's a bit impractical, especially for Sue Monks and her cello! Christian is also very involved, getting the bow strokes unanimous within the strings so we all produce the same kind of attack on the notes.

I notice that in fact the violin seldom plays WITH the orchestra. It's as if we are a Greek chorus commenting on what the protagonist is saying. A device Birtwistle has used many times in his Greek inspired compositions. Cast in a single 30-minute span, the piece draws to a close over a sustained 5-note viola chord and percussion rattles and abruptly ends with a solo pizzicato on a 'wrong' note as if to say, 'That's all folks!'

Surprisingly Harry has not been to any rehearsals (he normally comes and utters a few well-chosen words of advice in his broad Lancastrian burr). I expect he'll be there tonight to hear it and take the applause. I hope you can hear it too.

Tonight's Prom will be available to listen to on the BBC iPlayer for seven days after the concert 

Calling all Prommers - come and take part in the world premiere of Musica Benevolens at the Last Night!

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Roger Wright Roger Wright | 12:20 UK time, Wednesday, 7 September 2011

 

Photo of Proms Controller Roger Wright

Call to action - Proms Controller Roger Wright at the Royal Albert Hall

At the Last Night of the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, audiences will have the chance to hear the world premiere of a Musicians Benevolent Fund commission written by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies to mark the Fund's 90th birthday and to thank the Promenaders’ Musical Charities for collecting for musicians in need at the BBC Proms every year. This season’s collection now stands at over £74,000. It is a great effort by the Prommers and one that will be rightly celebrated at the Last Night.

 We have invited the Prommers to write special texts about the power of music and Max has incorporated them into his new piece. He has also requested that the Promenaders join in the performance, chanting those texts alongside the BBC Symphony Chorus. So we are calling on all Promenaders to take part! 

So, after the hugely successful first ever Audience Choice Prom last Friday, the audience participation continues at the festival's grand climax!

To ensure as many Promenaders as possible can be involved, Stephen Jackson, Director of the BBC Symphony Chorus, will be taking a 15-minute rehearsal in the Royal Albert Hall auditorium starting at 6.15pm on Saturday 10th September. Doors to the Hall for Last Night prom ticket holders will open at 6pm that night.

You can catch the world premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's Musica Benevolens in the first half of the Last Night of the Proms - broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and on BBC Two.

I am looking forward to seeing (and hearing!) you there.

Notes from a composer, Part 4 - Lost Worlds

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 10:19 UK time, Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Illustration: Salvador Dali - The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dali - The Persistence of Memory

Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his fourth post explaining the process and his thoughts along the way.

 

Last time I mused in general about temporal things. But now I’m a bit further on. And can report on some of the detail of the comings and goings of the first piece of my set of seven. So I’ve definitely called it ‘Lost Worlds’. And it’s become a kind of evocation of things once had, once grasped, once hoped for, and now gone. A sense of nostalgia is on the brink here. It’s a feeling I’m interested in. It’s often been rather dismissed in the refined circles of modern music – seen as something base, a suspicious, indulgent feeling. But it’s certainly one I have, one that seems to me part of being human – and in relation to thinking about time, and the evocation of different times, part of my expressive palette. Present time, or something like it, is cut across by things from the past – as memories involuntarily push into our consciousness. And the feelings that come with this can be strong.

But how am I trying to do this with music? There are a lot of stops and starts in the music to begin: different kinds of materials jostling against each other. Fast, slow, without pulse, very pulsed. And then, there are different kinds of harmonic worlds. This is very important for me. For too long, I tried to inhabit a sealed modernism, where all parts carefully derived from others, all was strictly coherent. This is in fact very much what I teach to students in general – for without coherence there is quickly confusion. So why I am not doing what I teach?! Because I need to push the boundaries of coherence to reach fuller, wider, deeper expression. Why can’t tonal music not sit alongside atonal? – and all the gradations in between. So bars 1-3, a recurring stillness, is a rich, deep complex sonority, yet made from the simple triadic building blocks of tonality; bars 4-7 instead turn towards the sounds of the pentatonic, the five-note group of pitches heard in so many folk musics around the world, from Celtic to Berber to Chinese. And then, in a flash, b.7 pushes that world of innocence – as I see it – away with ‘rude’ dissonance, but also something that might be heard as exuberant.

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The BBC National Orchestra of Wales's last night at the Proms ...

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Laura Sinnerton Laura Sinnerton | 11:56 UK time, Monday, 5 September 2011

 

Picture of a cimbalom and mallets

Hungarian cimbalom with mallets

Next time I’m bringing a packed lunch...

Viola player Laura Sinnerton of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales thrilled to a 20th-century classic which was new to her ...

After annual leave, we were straight back into the studio, preparing an eclectic programme for our final Prom of 2011, with our principal guest conductor Jac van Steen. Comprising two concertos, book-ended by a rousing Elgar overture and Kodály’s rather exotic Háry János Suite, it was a really fun programme to play and so, a nice way to start back to work. 

On Saturday 3rd September, we drove to London for an afternoon rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall. I knew the Prom had sold out, but was amazed by the queues of people waiting for tickets when we emerged from our rehearsal.  There’s always such a wide range of people queuing for tickets - it is wonderful to see so many people, from so many walks of life, coming to such an amazing festival of music.

Now, in between rehearsal and concert, I like to have something small but filling to eat and then a little bit of time to just sit down; but on Saturday, everything seemed to go wrong. 

For convenience (and the perfectly sized portion of bangers and mash) we planned to eat in the restaurant at the Hall, but it was so full and we didn’t have enough time to wait.  The next place we tried wasn’t serving yet.  Cursing myself for not having bought something at Reading Services, I finally got a substandard sandwich and toddled back to the hall in a huff to change and warm up.

We opened with Elgar’s rollicking ‘Cockaigne’ Overture.  Devoid of a viola solo, it’s no In The South, but still a fun play.

Then it was on to the first concerto.  Composed by our former Composer-in-Association, Michael Berkeley, the Concerto for Organ and Orchestra (soloist David Goode) was an opportunity to hear the Royal Albert Hall’s organ played full throttle.  It has 9997 speaking pipes!  I liked the bit at the end when the offstage trumpets played their independent, meandering melodies - in the space of the Albert Hall, it was really effective.

After the interval (and a chance to cool off - was anyone else abnormally sweaty in the hall on Saturday night?), it was Rachmaninov’s perennially popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This is one of those works where it can be said that, at times, familiarity breeds contempt, however, Marc-André Hamelin’s interpretation was gorgeous, with spice and pace in the fast variations, but tender and poignant, without ever being self-indulgent, in the slower variations.

Until last season, I had never heard Kodály’s Háry János Suite, but I think it’s a fabulous work and it has a viola solo (scrumptiously played by Jorg Winkler).  Even better, it has a cimbalom solo!  Cimbalom duties were performed by Ed Cervenka and I’m hoping next time we perform this work, he’ll let me have a go on the cimbalom.  Fingers crossed.  

So that’s it from us this year!  Goodbye Proms 2011 - see you in 2012!

Listen to Part I of the concert (Elgar and Berkeley). 
Listen to Part II of the concert (Rachmaninov and Kodály).
 

Proms Director Roger Wright answers your questions

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Roger Wright Roger Wright | 18:31 UK time, Friday, 2 September 2011

Photo of Proms Controller Roger Wright at the Royal Albert Hall

I am busy answering the latest batch of questions for the Ask the Director section of the BBC Proms website. This will be the penultimate set of Q and As that we publish as we move into the last week of the festival tomorrow. It is a very helpful way for me to deal with any questions audience members, radio listeners or TV viewers have about the Proms.

I am also looking forward to a good discussion at my annual public Q and A session in the Proms Plus event next Wednesday.

Given the disruption to the Prom last night, I expect questions about that concert. Amongst other subjects, I also expect to be asked about the issue of the lack of fountain in the arena of the Royal Albert Hall. So the debate will be as wide-ranging as ever.

Much has already been written and said about last night's Prom featuring the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and I recognise the wide variety of views.

I am sorry that the concert was disrupted and that we chose reluctantly to take our Radio 3 broadcast off air. Even though additional security was in place, no precautions can prevent vocal disruption of public events. Of course it was a difficult evening in many ways, but I am pleased that the capacity audience was able to enjoy the playing of the IPO in the complete programme and that Radio 3 listeners will be able to hear the second half of the concert in the repeat broadcast next Wednesday at 2.30.

After the audience noise at the start of the Bruch Concerto Gil Shaham went on to give a marvellous performance of the work and our audience will be able to hear his Bach encore which was rapturously received, as was the orchestra's Prokofiev encore which will also be broadcast next week.

I have answered questions about the arena fountain in my Q and As and explained the reasons behind its disappearance this year.

For every aspect of the Proms we carry out a review after the festival has finished and the fountain issue will form part of that discussion. I have received a petition asking for its reinstatement which has around 400 signatures on it and I gather that there are now more names. I have made it clear that I would rather have audience members not turned away for lack of space than take up that space with a fountain. The organisers of the petition have helpfully let me know that it is not the fountain itself that is the issue but the lack of seats that were round it. So we will think about that concern and no doubt have wider consultation to see what we might do next year.

Of course having such large crowds at so many Proms is a good problem to have.

I am often asked if particular Proms performances will be made available commercially. Sadly the lack of the necessary performers' rights usually prevent such commercial releases. However I am pleased to let you know that the much discussed performance of the Havergal Brian Gothic Symphony on the first Sunday of the Proms will be released as a CD recording.

That first weekend seems like a lifetime away already and the start of the 2012 Proms is only ten months in the future. The planning never stops.

Roger Wright is Controller of Radio 3 and Director of BBC Proms

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