Archives for February 2012

Quartet finds drama in rehearsal and performance ...

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Dane Johansen Dane Johansen | 10:32 UK time, Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Photo of the Escher Quartet


As Radio 3 listeners heard last week, the Escher Quartet’s Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert produced some unexpected drama. Cellist Dane Johansen fills in the background


The Escher Quartet's latest trip to the United Kingdom was very exciting, artistically enriching and – as you will discover – quite adventurous! As members of the Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme it has been our privilege to record great repertoire for radio broadcast, both from the studio and in live concert.

Our recent tour of the UK began with a set of Radio 3 NGA studio recording sessions. Our past recordings have taken place at the BBC's Maida Vale studios; for our latest sessions we had the opportunity to record at The Warehouse, Waterloo – a beautiful old warehouse (as the name suggests) that has been very successfully transformed into a space for recording. We began with Brahms's third quartet, in B-flat Major. A very demanding work both musically and technically, the third quartet is lighter in expression than either of Brahms's two earlier quartets and at times is almost classical in style. The music requires a tremendous variety of character and expression and often demands great energy. We were very happy with the results of the sessions and are excited to hear the final cut. The fluorescent lights at The Warehouse were buzzing, so early in the session we decided to record without lights, relying on the ample natural light streaming in through the large windows. As the first day of recording drew on we required a bit more light, so one of the engineers set up a halogen spotlight above the quartet. At one point in the middle of the third movement of the Brahms there was a deafening explosion – we all jumped and certain members screamed with fright! We looked around us to see molten shards of glass all over the floor, thankfully not all over us. The spotlight had exploded (perhaps in reaction to Brahms’s passionate writing) and the sizzling shards had burned into the wood floors. Wu Jie's violin case was slightly burned by the hot glass but in the end no one was hurt and we had a bit of unprecedented excitement in the studio! Our lead violinist Adam suffered a few nose bleeds, but I think it was connected to a bad case of the sniffles he brought with him from New York City, not the exploding light or the intensity of Brahms!

On the second day we worked on Webern's Five Pieces for String Quartet. The expressive demands of this relatively sparse composition were in such stark contrast to those presented by the Brahms. It was as fun as it was challenging to push the limits of all the extended techniques Webern used in these five pieces. In the end we were very happy with the results and we look forward to listening to our version of these pieces on the Radio. We would like to thank producer Emma Bloxham, assistant Philip O’Meara, studio manager Michael Bacon and everyone else from BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists for such a wonderful and exciting experience in the studio!


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Tervetuloa Sakari! (Welcome Sakari)

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Phil Hall Phil Hall | 08:43 UK time, Friday, 24 February 2012


Sakari Oramo

Sakari Oramo

BBC Symphony Orchestra sub-principal viola Phil Hall welcomes the appointment of their new chief conductor.

So, the news is finally out - after only a single concert last Autumn, the BBCSO's new chief conductor is Finn, Sakari Oramo. To some, that might seem surprising; but he has 25 years of experience and successful partnerships under his belt.

I first heard of him when I was working in the Finnish provinces in the late '80s. Sakari was then a young, gifted concert master (leader) of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. He took lessons from the great conducting guru Jorma Panula (who taught just about every Finnish conductor on the circuit). A year later he was co-principal conductor of his orchestra and then came chiefdoms in Helsinki, Birmingham (which won him an OBE), Stockholm and Ostrobothnia (which has one of the finest chamber orchestras in the country). He finishes in Helsinki in May but will take up his position with us next year.

In any orchestra you are seldom going to please everyone but I can honestly say that this appointment has been universally welcomed. His rehearsals for the concert back in October were thorough but good-natured, charismatic and enjoyable and left everyone wanting to sample a lot more. He also has a penchant for English and contemporary music both of which the orchestra excels at. So, 'Hyvää Suomi!' (as they say) and let the new era begin!

Find details of Sakari Oramo's appointment on the BBC SO website

A Composer Writes - Postscript

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 14:52 UK time, Wednesday, 22 February 2012


Illustration of exercise books


Composer Michael Zev Gordon has completed a new piece - Bohortha (Seven Pieces for Orchestra) which will be premiered on 3 October at the Barbican Hall by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Neeme Järvi.Throughout the process, he downloaded his thoughts and feelings in his regular blog postings here. Michael will return to the Radio 3 Blog in the autumn when his new work goes into rehearsal. Here. he reflects on the process of blogging itself.

One more thing has given me cause to think while writing Bohortha for the BBC Symphony Orchestra - and that’s if writing my blog on it actually had its own effect on the piece, or rather on the composing of the piece. I had to come up with something reasonably articulate in the blog! And as I’ve tried to indicate, composition is as much about clarification and selection as free-flow expression. So by regularly putting into words what doesn’t always easily go into words, there was one more layer of focusing, which may well have had its input into my compositional choices - and even my powers of concentration.

I did, it’s true, write most of the blogs immediately following composition, not while I was actually doing it! That would have got just too much in the way. But something flowed on from the blogs. And I think dividing the process into considered small parts  - that blogging made me do - affected the composition too. Despite my moment of blockage, I think it probably speeded things up.

Does that mean I’d do it again? In so public a sphere, perhaps not – or not soon. But it will encourage me greatly to fill more notebooks with something beyond hurried notes to myself. It will push me on towards a more balanced approach between intuition and reason. Balance will always be the goal.

New Generation Artists ... New Videos

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Philip O'Meara Philip O'Meara | 09:50 UK time, Thursday, 16 February 2012

Collage of Radio 3 New Generation Artist photos

Radio 3's New Generation Artists

Radio 3 New Generation Artists broadcast assistant Philip O'Meara flags up the latest artist videos ...

The internet is a vast place. But where to go to see videos of performances and interviews by the members of Radio 3’s illustrious New Generation Artists scheme (I hear you ask)? Well, beginning with the artists of 2007-2009, the good people of the Radio 3 Interactive department began creating short videos to introduce these dazzling artists to you, the online aficionado. Perhaps these videos will one day appear on a future TV series: 'Before They Were Even More Famous'. Artists include Liz Watts (2007-2009), an ever-growing name in the soprano world; Benjamin Grosvenor - a young pianist whose appearance as the youngest ever soloist at the Proms last year has helped to shoot him back into the national musical limelight; and the latest video appearance by a new recruit to the NGA scheme – Russian/German pianist Igor Levit, with some surprisingly down-to-earth insight into the day-to-day life of a professional pianist, interspersed with Tchaikovsky, no less.

  • To explore the wealth of videos visit the New Generation Artists playlist on the Radio 3 YouTube Channel.
  • And for more general info on the NGA scheme visit the home page



Roger Wright introduces The Spirit of Schubert.

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Roger Wright Roger Wright | 15:40 UK time, Monday, 13 February 2012

Portrait of Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Radio 3 Controller Roger Wright reflects on the network's forthcoming focus on the music of Schubert.

There is an important role that BBC Radio 3 plays that is often overlooked, and that is its function as a catalyst for ideas - at the very least, moulding agendas rather than following them.

However it can also have the powerful effect of leading debate and developing tastes amongst our audience and opinion formers. You can feel this happen at the Proms - look at the recent surge of interest in Havergal Brian and Parry, or in musicals and the work of the John Wilson Orchestra.

But you can also see it in our special festivals such as Free Thinking and our composer seasons. In our 'time-poor' world, the opportunity for Radio 3 to single out huge creative figures for special attention and bring them and their work to a wider audience is really appreciated by our audiences. When one season is over the ideas pile in for suggestions for the next composer to be gjven the full treatment. It is, I suppose, an extension of our Composer of the Week principle - if you only have time to think about one composer this week, let us recommend x or y.

Since we announced last weekend that our next major composer focus (at the end of March) will be Schubert, the discussion has begun. Roger Scruton has suggested that we need Schubert now more than ever - 'no writer of music is more relevant to us' he wrote. There is also lots of discussion about the business of finishing works left unfinished by artists. Brian Newbould has bravely agreed to our commission to complete a symphony left unfinished by  Schubert - just one part of our extensive season, 'The Spirit of Schubert'.

Already our Breakfast and Essential Classics programmes have been providing mouth-watering tasters of Schubert to come. Breakfast has an important role in providing pointers to what is coming up on the station and I am delighted that our new morning schedule has proved such a hit, according to the listening figures just released. There has been an increase by more than 25% in the Breakfast slot and our average listening is up by more than an hour a week.

Of course this is only one quarter's figures, but encouraging nonetheless as we prepare to fall under the spell of Schubert.

José Hernando's journey with the World Routes Academy begins

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Jose Hernando Noguera Jose Hernando Noguera | 12:45 UK time, Monday, 6 February 2012

Photo of Egidio Cuadrado (l) and Jose Hernando Noguera

Egidio Cuadrado (l) and José Hernando Noguera


Radio 3's 2012 World Routes Academy protégé is the 19-year-old self-taught virtuoso accordion player José Hernando Noguera – the youngest performer to enter the scheme. His mentor is Egidio Cuadrado, who is based in Bogota, and is regarded as the leading Vallenato accordionist of his generation. This is José's first Blog since his World Routes launch concert on 29 January.

As soon as we got to the arrival gate, Roger started asking me questions and I told him we must focus on the sombreo voltiado. That’s the Vallenato trademark hat. And sure enough, I saw a man with a sombreo at the far end of the corridor and shouted out, 'Yeah that’s Egidio, he’s here!” But turns out it wasn’t him and seeing as Roger recorded this bit for the radio, it was an embarrassing moment (you might hear it on the radio if Roger decides to leave it in the next radio programme broadcast on 11 March). A few minutes later maestro Egidio arrives with his wife Fanny and he isn’t wearing a hat!

It was my first time performing for the BBC and I remember being a nervous wreck, but of course very excited at the same time.  As I sat backstage ready to go on stage, I remember saying to myself 'José, this is your time'. So when the moment came for Damon Albarn to announce me, I was ready and launched into my performance. The best moment was when I played the merengue style with maestro Egidio and my band. It was a wonderful experience. There was a great connection between the musicians which was quite amazing considering we only met once for a rehearsal the day before the launch concert. Playing with maestro Egidio Cuadrado for the first time was a very special moment in my life. A moment I will never forget and will always cherish in my heart.


Notes from a composer, Part 12 - Endings

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Michael Zev Gordon Michael Zev Gordon | 11:38 UK time, Monday, 6 February 2012


Image of a chequered flag


Composer Michael Zev Gordon is writing a new piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here's his final post explaining the process ...

I read terribly slowly, and not so long ago, after months of reading, I finished Anna Karenina. As happens with every book I like – and this one I truly loved – I am driven on in the last chapters to know the end, and so things speed up. And yet, at the same time, I dwell on every page, then every sentence, not wanting the delectable moments to finish. It feels like saying goodbye to a dear friend and it makes me sad.

It’s not so very different when I come to the end of a piece, especially one I’ve taken a long time over, as in the case of 'Bohortha'. And in the last two weeks as I have been polishing and re-polishing the last movement, I have both accelerated towards the last notes, and held off drawing the final double-bar line.

Things do often seem to come easier, quicker at the close – and still it takes me by surprise. Only three days before I completed my work, I thought I was still a long way off. I didn’t know if the textures were too full, or which way the final bars would indeed go. I wasn’t sure if I had done enough to capture the multi-time world I was trying to evoke in this last movement, which shares the same title as the piece as a whole. In my previous blog I was still deliberating over minutiae of patterns: would the end stay in a slow 5-beat time? Would it give way to ametrical music? Would it all sound too predictable, and so monotonous, if I wasn’t careful?

And then suddenly two days before I finished, all somehow fell into place. Yes, I would keep the 5-time – but I would overlay it with something of the 3- and 4- time to have one more take on superimposition of metre. Yes, the opening of the whole work would be re-visited – but I would not end it there. No, that would be too ‘neat’. And so, yes, a final – longer – ametrical section would end the whole work. And the notes to fill these large ideas came easily – just flowed out – as they very occasionally do, when I am, as it were, really in the moment. And when that happens, concerns – as it were from a critical distance – as to the danger of boredom, evaporate. The piece has to be as it is.

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Inside the BBC NOW Composers' Workshops

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Laura Sinnerton Laura Sinnerton | 12:11 UK time, Thursday, 2 February 2012

Photo of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales's Composer Workshops

Conductor Jac van Steen discusses a point with Gareth Olubunmi Hughes (standing)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales viola player Laura Sinnerton is back with fresh insights from the orchestra's 2012 Composers' Workshops

I have never felt any real inclination to compose. I enjoy being a part of bringing other peoples’ creations to life, but alas, Bright Cecilia did not gift me with compositional ability (unless the highly original version of the set study I performed in my Grade 6 Piano examination counts ...)

But I admire those who have the ability to take disparate ideas in their minds and craft them into a complex whole; and so it was interesting for me to have a chat with three composers taking part in the Orchestra’s Composers’ Workshops this week (Sarah Lianne Lewis, Joseph Davies and Gareth Olubunmi Hughes). 

As an instrumentalist, starting out in the profession is tough enough. However, we have the opportunity to hone our skills through numerous youth orchestras, young artist schemes and placements. But what of our composers?

The general consensus amongst the trio I spoke to was that while there are similar opportunities available for composers, there are certainly fewer, and the chance to workshop with a full symphony orchestra in the manner this project allows is a rare one. Scores are submitted several months in advance, with half a dozen subsequently chosen for rehearsal with the orchestra.


The six selected composers receive a recording of their work, and a panel (including our composer-in-association, Simon Holt; resident composer, Mark Bowden; and our principal guest conductor, Jac van Steen) select some of the scores for public performance at the end of the project. This year, there are two additional workshops - composing for wind quintet and composing for harp.


Whatever your thoughts on ‘new music’, it is brave for someone to place their creation, something they have poured a part of themselves into, in front of an orchestra. Musicians are not always kind people. Each of the composers I shared a coffee with were genuinely eager to have their work examined under the microscope, to learn what worked and what didn’t. I guess it’s like a lot of things - you can know the theory, but until you get to try it out, how can you ever know if it works?


It was interesting to hear the different influences each had (all really quite discernible in their works), and to discuss the impetus driving each of their voices. For Joseph and Sarah, the emphasis is upon creating a sounds and colours, often related to very specific instrumental voices, whereas for Gareth, the emphasis is more upon harmonic progression. Sadly, lunch wasn’t long enough for us to properly address the ‘where have all the big, tunes gone?’ question.


I know that at times I can be impatient with new music - sometimes I just don’t get it, sometimes the thought of playing thirteen notes in the space of seven makes my brain hurt - but music should always be an adventure. Music is a living, breathing, ever changing thing, and we must embrace that. Our young (and not so young) composers deserve our support in continuing to develop their craft as wholeheartedly as we instrumentalists are supported.


The Welsh Composers Showcase concludes this evening (Thursday 2nd February) with a public concert at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay. Free tickets are available by calling 0800 052 1812.


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