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Update August 2018

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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


August 11, 2018 - August 17, 2018

Beating around


Composer Kalevi Aho. (Photo/BR-Klassik)

Many thousands of years ago, when the world was a much younger place and even before the first human languages had emerged, someone probably banged two stones together and found that the sound was pleasing. Or perhaps it was two sticks. We’ll never know, but it was the earliest beginnings of what we now call percussion instruments, claimed to be the oldest family of musical instruments in the world. 

The raw elemental power of drums, bells and cymbals has ceremonial, sacred, or symbolic associations for many societies. The first drum appeared after someone decided to place a dried animal hide over a frame and then pull it tight so that it vibrated when struck. Perhaps it was invented by accident. They’ve been around since 6000 BC and were sometimes used for signaling. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe drums were often associated with military music. Some types of drum were used in the infantry to send coded instructions to the soldiers.

During the early years of the seventeenth century, the German composer and theorist Michael Praetorius published his magisterial Syntagma Musicum which among other things described the musical instruments of the day. The book includes pictures of many percussion instruments including the triangle, bells, hand-held drums and large kettle drums. However, at the time percussion instruments were largely confined to dance music.

Percussion instruments were slow to enter the developing orchestra of the eighteenth century. The timpani were the first, usually in the form of a pair of tuned drums to reinforce the sound at climatic moments. Haydn’s Symphony No 100 dates from the 1790s and unusually uses triangle, cymbals and bass drum, reflecting the current vogue for Turkish music. Not surprisingly, the symphony earned the nickname The Military. By the end of the nineteenth century, most orchestral works included parts not only for timpani, but also for snare drum, triangle, tambourine, bass drum or cymbals.

The twentieth century saw the rise of orchestral percussion as never before and composers frequently called for a massive battery of instruments as well as a high level of skill to play them, creating the climate for the Concerto for Percussion.

Incidentally, percussion instruments are usually classified roughly into two groups: tuned and untuned. Tuned percussion includes instruments that can literally play a tune, such as the xylophone, the glockenspiel, the marimba, vibraphone or the tubular bells. Untuned percussion includes almost everything else.

Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943): Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. Thomas Burritt (perc), Texas Festival Orchestra cond. Vladimir Kulenovic (Duration: 30:56; Video: 1080p HD)

Joseph Schwantner is a prolific American composer and academic who draws on many different musical traditions such as impressionism, jazz, serialism, African drumming and minimalism. The Concerto for Percussion dates from 1994 and was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. The soloist uses two groups of percussion, one placed behind the orchestra and used during the first and third movements and another group placed in front of the orchestra for the second.  Not only that, but there’s also orchestral percussion and timpani along with piano and harp.

The work relies very much on repetitive minimalist approaches with contrasting timbres and textures and uses a wide variety of percussion instruments and playing techniques.

Kalevi Aho (b. 1949): Sieidi - Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. Martin Grubinger (perc), Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Gustavo Gimeno (Duration: 35:46; Video: 720p HD)

There’s a large sign in South Pattaya advertising something-or-other which reads “prepare to be amazed.” I am not sure how one prepares for amazement, but if you happen to know the secret, prepare to be amazed at this dazzling work. It’s by someone who’s been described as Finland’s “most significant living symphonic composer”. Kalevi Aho is hugely productive and draws on a wide range of musical genres to create his own soundscapes. He is known especially for his large scale works which include seventeen symphonies, thirty concertos, five operas and a great deal of chamber music.

This concerto dates from 2010 and uses a wide range of percussion instruments and unusual playing techniques. Watch out for the appearance of a vibraphone (at 14:30), a large xylophone-like instrument with aluminium bars and motor-driven rotating disks at the top end of its resonator tubes, producing a tremolo effect. The concerto is performed by the Austrian percussionist Martin Grubinger who provides a virtuosic display which is nothing short of thrilling. It’s an incredible feat of musical memory too.

Towards the end of the concerto the thunderous sounds begin to die away and the work ends in almost total silence with the sound of a rain-stick, a South American folk instrument made from a cactus. When held upright, it creates the sound of gently falling water. 

August 4, 2018 - August 10, 2018

All at Sea


Composer and teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

INow then, here’s a question for you. What do the following names have in common? They are Pinta, Niña and Santa María. I admit that it’s not a very difficult question, but it’s the end of the week and I don’t want to tax your intellect too much. No doubt you’ll recall that they are the names of the three ships that left the mainland of Spain on 3rd August 1492 under the overall command of the Genoese navigator and explorer, Christopher Columbus. Like many others, he believed that it would be possible to reach the lucrative markets of eastern Asia by heading west, as an alternative to the increasingly dangerous overland route. The three little ships were at sea for over two months before land was sighted. As we all now know, it wasn’t the land that Columbus hoped to find, but instead a small island in the present-day Bahamas.

The sea has always fascinated poets, writers and artists. John Masefield’s sea poems immediately spring to mind as do the superb visionary seascapes of the brilliant but slightly dotty J. M. Turner, who was nonetheless artistically years ahead of his time. The French impressionists also found that the sea was a rich source of inspiration, especially Claude Monet, best known for his many marine paintings. Then there’s the Russian Ivan Aivazovsky, one of the great masters of marine art whose luminous canvases really seem to catch the sea in all its moods.

Unlike poets and painters, few composers seem to have found inspiration from the sea, despite the fact that it covers most of the world’s surface. Mendelssohn wrote a concert overture called Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and Delius wrote a lovely orchestral piece called Sea Drift. Britten and Elgar used sea themes; Vaughan Williams wrote a Sea Symphony and the lesser-known Granville Bantock composed a Hebridean Symphony. But these are works inspired by the sea rather than ships. Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is the name of a ghostly ship and the British film music composer Ron Goodwin wrote a suite for band called The Tall Ships. Otherwise, music inspired by ships is about as rare as music inspired by railway trains.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 –1908): The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship. Yale Symphony Orchestra, cond. Toshiyuki Shimada (Duration: 10:12; Video: 1080p HD)

This must be the most well-known piece inspired by a ship, albeit a fictional one. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship is the first movement of Scheherazade, a symphonic suite composed by Rimsky-Korsakov in the summer of 1887. It’s based on pictures from One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled during the so-called Islamic Golden Age.

Scheherazade has become the composer’s most popular work, characterized by memorable tunes and dazzling orchestration. It’s one of several of his works based on oriental themes and reflects the then current fad in Imperial Russia for all things Oriental. The work is cast in four movements and if you have YouTube configured appropriately, it should play the remaining movements in succession.

Incidentally, Rimsky-Korsakov had an enormous influence on Russian music. During his thirty-five years at Saint Petersburg Conservatoire he taught over 250 students including such famous names as Glazunov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Respighi. He was a brilliant orchestrator and his book Principles of Orchestration is still in print and essential reading for all serious students of arranging and composition. 

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Une barque sur l’océan. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln cond. François-Xavier Roth (Duration: 07.24; Video: 720p HD)

During the 1920s and 1930s Ravel was considered France’s leading composer. Strangely enough he wrote no symphonies but a great deal of music for the piano, some of which is exceptionally difficult to play. He made many orchestral transcriptions of his piano compositions and this is one of them. Une Barque sur l’océan is the third movement of the technically-challenging five-movement Miroirs, a suite for solo piano that he completed in 1905. The title of course means “a boat on the ocean” and it’s typical Ravel, with sweeping musical gestures and rich colourful harmonies. Like his older contemporary Claude Debussy, Ravel was greatly attracted to the sea and in the music has captured the sense of the movement of sea breeze and the rolling ocean waves.

As a bonus, you also get a superb performance of one of the finest French works inspired by the sea, Debussy’s three-movement suite entitled Le Mer.  It’s played immediately after the Ravel almost without a break. This is an interesting approach which seems to work as a performance strategy, for a burst of wild applause between these two serene movements would hardly be less appropriate.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Beating around

All at Sea



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