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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Update April 24, 2015

Playing the System

Composer Arturo Márquez.

There can be few classical music enthusiasts who haven’t heard of El Sistema, Venezuela’s vast music education programme.  It emphasizes intensive ensemble work from the earliest stages and relies on group learning and peer teaching with a commitment to the joys of music-making.  Although it has recently encountered some scathingly critical press reports, El Sistema consists of over a hundred youth orchestras, fifty-five children’s orchestras, and nearly three hundred music centres.  The system has over 500,000 students and there are plans to expand the programme to serve a million students annually.  These are staggering numbers, yet participation is theoretically free for all students, the enormous and expensive organisation being financed by the Venezuelan government.

El Sistema began in 1975 under the leadership of conductor, violinist and educator José Abreu (ah-BREH-oo) to help poor Venezuelan children learn to play a musical instrument and eventually become part of an orchestra.  It began modestly enough with less than a dozen students in an underground parking lot.  Abreu believes that “music should be recognized as an agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the exemplary values of solidarity, harmony and mutual compassion.  It also has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings”.

The System has produced international musicians, among them Gustavo Dudamel, the chief conductor of the world-renowned Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, itself a product of El Sistema.  Dudamel is also Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Honorary Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden.  He started conducting as a child and later attracted the attention of conductors Sir Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado.  In 2002 he was invited to study with Rattle in a scheme supported by the Berlin Philharmonic.  Those who know Dudamel comment on his dedication and passion for music and his capacity for sheer hard work.

Arturo Márquez (b.1950): Danzón No. 2. Simón Bolívar
Symphony Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 09:41, Video: 480p)

There is a wealth of exciting orchestral music from Mexico and South America written by composers who are barely known in Europe.  Arturo Márquez is one such musician and this exuberant work is a good example of his colourful musical style which uses elements of Mexican folk and popular music.  His father played in a mariachi band and his paternal grandfather was a folk musician.  In his childhood he was surrounded by the music which would become the driving force in his later compositions.

Danzón No. 2 is one of Mexico’s most popular orchestral compositions.  It was commissioned by the National Autonomous University of Mexico and first performed in 1994 in Mexico City.  The name of the piece refers to a dance style called the danzón, a national dance of Cuba also popular in Mexico and Puerto Rico.  The dance evolved from another form known as the contradanza which surprisingly may have had its roots in England.

The danzón found a new home in the Mexican state of Veracruz where Arturo Márquez evidently got the idea for the work.  It opens with an evocative sound-image of a ballroom – presumably in Veracruz – but the mood soon changes into a carnival-like atmosphere.  The orchestra gives a fine performance with superb precision and committed playing. It’s all thrilling stuff.

José Pablo Moncayo García (1912-1958): Huapango. Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra cond. Gustavo Dudamel (Duration: 08:51, Video: 480p)

Moncayo is another of those Mexican composers virtually unknown in Europe but in Mexico he’s considered one of the country’s top composers.  Although he wrote many orchestral works, chamber music, a couple of symphonies, an opera and a ballet, he’s best-known for this colourful orchestral fantasyThe huapango is a Mexican folk dance which exists in a variety of different forms but invariably has a rather complicated rhythmic structure.  Written in 1941, this music is Mexican to the core and was first performed in 1941 by the Symphony Orchestra of Mexico.  It’s thrilling music – a power-house of brilliantly articulated sounds.  The music has raw energy and heart-tugging moments of poignant yet joyous melody.

Incidentally, the orchestra that appears in this video used to be called the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.  By the year 2011 the ageing players could hardly be described as “youth” and the name was subsequently changed.  The country’s national youth orchestra is now the Teresa Carreńo Youth Orchestra.

It’s wonderful to see these fine young musicians playing with the commitment of soloists and have such an obvious delight in the music.  This is a superb orchestra by any standards and The System couldn’t possibly have better ambassadors.  And by the way, the country acquired its name during a visit by the Spanish seafarer Alonso de Ojeda in1499.  It seems that the local stilt houses on the water reminded the expedition’s navigator of Venice, so he promptly named the region Veneziola - “Little Venice”.

Update April 16, 2015

Festivals – without the water

Shostakovich in the 1950s

It’s that time of year again when you’re either out in the streets having a hilarious time throwing water at everyone else or like me, locked up at home hoping the whole wretched business will be over as quickly as possible.  But whether we like it or not, it’s festival time again.

In Moscow’s chilly autumn of 1954, a concert was held at the Bolshoi Theatre to commemorate the anniversary of the October Revolution which had taken place in 1917 and known variously as the Great October Socialist Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution or simply Red October.  The concert was conducted by the Bolshoi conductor Vassili Nebolsin who – so the story goes - suddenly realised a few days before the concert that he didn’t have a suitable new work to open the show.  Now you’d have thought that all this would have been planned weeks or even months ahead but clearly, it wasn’t.

Eventually Nebolsin - presumably in a state of some agitation - contacted the composer Dmitri Shostakovich to see if he could come up with something.  Shostakovich was one of the leading Russian composers of the time and had a reputation for being able to knock out music at very short notice.  And knock it out he did, completing the entire score of Festive Overture within just three days.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Festive Overture, Op. 96. Korean Broadcasting System Symphony Orchestra, cond. Hahm Shin-Ik (Duration 06:46, Video: 720p HD)

In Stalinist Russia, music had to be approved by the government and Shostakovich ran into trouble as early as 1936 with his opera Lady Macbeth of Minsk.  It was derided in the government press as being “formalist, coarse, primitive and vulgar.” 

The same year saw the beginning of the so-called Great Terror, in which many of the composer’s friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed for thought to being opposed to the regime.  Not surprisingly, Shostakovich kept a low profile, at least until the first performance of his Fifth Symphony in 1937.  It was musically more conservative than his earlier works and deemed acceptable by the authorities.  The first performance in Leningrad was a phenomenal success and evidently had a powerful emotional effect on the audience.

Stalin had died in 1953 and perhaps the feeling of joy that we hear in the Festive Overture of 1954 reflects Shostakovich’s sense of relief that a dark episode in Russian history had drawn to a close.  The music bears more than a passing resemblance to Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla overture in that it has the same kind of mood, style and tempo.  Some of the themes in the Festive Overture were lifted out of the ill-fated opera Lady Macbeth of Minsk which now, incidentally is an established part of the repertoire.

The overture demands orchestral playing of the highest calibre and this Korean orchestra gives a spirited performance.  This sizzling, exciting music is brilliantly orchestrated and the tension hardly lets up: it’s a breathless race to the finishing line.  In some ways, the overture is slightly over-the-top, bordering on vulgarity but I suspect that this was exactly what the composer intended.

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936): Roman Festivals. National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain cond. Vasily Petrenko (Duration: 26:23, Video: 720p HD)

Respighi settled in Rome in 1913 and he’s best known for three symphonic poems: The Fountains of Rome (1916), The Pines of Rome (1924) and Roman Festivals.  The third work was first performed in 1929 by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini.  It’s the longest and probably the most difficult of the three, both in terms of orchestral writing and its demands on the listener.  But don’t let that put you off, because it contains some exhilarating music.

In the first movement (Circuses) Respighi creates an almost photographic sound-picture of an imperial Roman event in which condemned Christian martyrs are thrown to wild animals.  We hear the animals grunting, a hymn from the desperate martyrs and the sounds of devastating carnage as the Roman spectators howl with excitement.  Compared to this horrific spectacle, Pattaya Songkran is almost sedate.

The second movement (Jubilee) depicts medieval pilgrims arriving in Rome as church bells resound through the city.  The third movement (Harvest of October) describes the celebrations that follow the harvest and in the final movement (Epiphany) Respighi portrays a teeming throng of merry-makers packed into the Piazza Navona on the night before Epiphany.  The entire work is intensely visual and cinematic.  As John Mangum of the New York Philharmonic wrote, it’s “like a soundtrack without a film.”

The NYO gives a remarkably fluent performance of this demanding work under the young Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko who lives in the Wirral Peninsula in Northern England.  As well as being an internationally acclaimed conductor, he’s also a football fan and apparently an enthusiastic supporter of Liverpool Football Club.

Update April 10, 2015

Choral Contrasts

Gabriel Fauré in 1905. (Photo: Pierre Petit)

It’s probably a pretty safe bet to state that the first music ever to be heard on this planet was made by the human voice.  At some point in human evolution, perhaps even before recogniseable speech began to develop, people found that they could make sounds with their voices that were melodious - at least by their standards.  The human voice can produce a wide range of sounds and as well as musical pitches, humans can also hum and whistle and make many percussive sounds using the throat or other parts of the body.  With a few exceptions, singing is virtually the only human sound that has survived into European classical music.

Many centuries were to elapse before music became structured into modes or scales and these varied considerably from one culture to another.  The nearest thing to a western choir emerged in ancient Greece around the second century BC when a chorus was needed for Greek drama.

Choral singing in the form of simple chants was fostered in the Christian church and became standardised around 500 AD under Pope Gregory.  The style of music that became known as Gregorian chant consisted of a single melodic line and many examples of these strangely beautiful melodies have come down to us today.  Later, interest was added to these melodies by adding parallel vocal parts.  The twelfth century French composers Léonin and Pérotin developed a choral style at Notre Dame in Paris known as organum in which the tenor part held the chant melody (from the Latin, tenere “to hold”) while the lower voices provided a sustained drone-like bass line.

It was another few hundred years that choral music with independent voice parts developed.  During the Renaissance, roughly between 1400 and 1600, choral music was well-established and became sophisticated in its use of voices and harmonies.  Although choral music originally developed in the church, secular choral music – especially madrigals - began to appear, thanks largely to the invention of printing.  The Renaissance saw the divergence of choral music into two broad streams, one using liturgical texts and others using secular.

Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924): Requiem, Op. 48. Sylvia Schwartz (sop), Roderick Williams (bar), Denmark Radio Concert Choir and Symphony Orchestra cond. Ivor Bolton (Duration: 38:16, Video: 1080p HD)

Gabriel Fauré composed this charming work in the late 1880s, revised it in the 1890s and finally completed it in 1900.  Although it’s probably his best-known work, no one seems to know why he wrote it.  The composer himself wrote in a letter to a friend that it “wasn't written for anything - for pleasure, if I may call it that.”  He scored the work for two soloists, chorus and orchestra and the vocal writing is interesting because while sometimes the choir sings in union, at other times he uses rich choral harmonies by dividing the tenor and bass sections.

The work is cast in seven movements and perhaps the best known are the lyrical Sanctus (at 14:04) and the Pie Jesu (at 17:21).  The ethereal last movement (at 30:05), In paradisum is stunningly beautiful and quietly moving.  

Carl Orff (1895-1982): Carmina Burana.  Royal Chorale Cecilia Antwerp, Royal Gent Oratorio Society, Children’s Choir of Wilrijk Music Academy, La Passione Chamber Orchestra Eindhoven, cond. Paul Dinneweth. (Duration 01:03:44, Video: 1080p HD) 

You’ notice that this work runs for over an hour, but with Songkran on its way you may need something to pass the time.  Even if you have never heard the title before, you’ll surely recognise some of the movements, because they’ve been used in countless movies and television programmes.

Carmina Burana is based on twenty-four poems from the medieval collection of the same name.  Compared to the chaste Latin liturgical text that Fauré used for his Requiem, this is more bucolic stuff which is often quite racy in nature.  The poems cover a wide range of different subjects such as the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joy of the return of spring and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling and sexual lust.  Even so, don’t worry about children hearing it because all the words are in either Latin or Middle High German.

Orff really captured the spirit of the medieval period in his use of melody, infectious rhythms and simple harmonies.  The choral writing is actually quite straightforward and declamatory and the music contains little development in the classical sense.

The cantata contains twenty-five separate movements and was written during 1935 and 1936.  It became hugely popular in Germany after its premiere in Frankfurt in 1937 perhaps because of the perceived erotic tone of some of the poems.  The composer himself thought it was the best piece he’d ever written and even told his publishers to destroy all his previous works, which of course, they didn’t.

Update April 4, 2015

A Farewell to Hams

Berlioz in 1863. (Photo/Pierre Lanith Petit)

In London, carnival usually means only one thing: the Notting Hill Carnival, a lively three-day celebration with street parades around the residential and shopping area of the same name.  Led by members of London’s West Indian community, it’s been going since the 1960s and it’s one of the biggest street carnivals anywhere.  Even so, it’s not a carnival in the strict sense of the word.  

The term carnival has probably come from the Latin expression carne vale, which means “farewell to meat”, signifying the supposed period of fasting and general restraint during the Christian season of Lent.  Mind you, I can’t help feeling that a farewell to meat would be a jolly good thing for most people.  Perhaps the world needs more vegetarians and vegans and I bet most pigs, sheep and cows would agree.  Anyway, it would have been immensely satisfying to tell you that both composers of these two well-known concert overtures were vegetarians, but they weren’t.  At least, not as far as I know.

By the end of the eighteenth century favourite opera overtures were being performed as separate items in the concert hall.  During the early years of the nineteenth century, many composers started using the word for a stand-alone concert piece, probably because there were no other suitable terms available.  They were nearly always fairly short, single-movement pieces for orchestra invariably with some kind of literary or descriptive associations.

Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904): Carnival Overture, Op 92. BBC Symphony Orchestra cond. Jirí Bělohlávek (Duration: 09:51, Video: 720p HD)

I have to admit that this takes me back a good few years. I remember playing it when I was a cellist in a youth orchestra in Britain. There are some difficult moments in the cello part, and at the time I had a suspicion that old Dvorák had it in for us cellists.

The conductor on this recording also began his musical career as a cello player but eventually moved on to conducting. He worked with the Czech Philharmonic in the 1970s and later became chief conductor of the distinguished Prague Symphony Orchestra.

This work is one of three concert overtures that Dvorák wrote in the 1890s. He intended them to be played together, though in practice they rarely are. If you are new to Dvorák this is probably a good place to start. According to the composer, the lively opening section depicts a festival in full swing at which the noise of instruments is heard everywhere, mingled with shouts of joy of the people giving vent to their feelings in songs and dances.

There’s a lovely romantic and contemplative section in the middle of the overture and at 04:36 a wistful phrase appears on the cor anglais. Incidentally, this instrument is sometimes known by its old-fashioned and somewhat erroneous name the English horn, but it’s neither English nor a horn. At 05:20 the same phrase appears on the cellos and basses producing an ethereal and a magical effect. Then at 05:52 the carnival spirit returns and brings the overture to a joyful conclusion.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869): Roman Carnival Overture, Op. 9. YouTube Symphony Orchestra 2011 cond. Michael Tilson Thomas (Duration: 09:54, Video: 1080p HD)

This lively overture was first performed in Paris in February 1844. Six years earlier Berlioz had completed his opera Benvenuto Cellini which had been inspired by the colourful memoirs of the eponymous sixteenth century Florentine sculptor. To create this stand-alone piece Berlioz used various melodies from the opera as well as some material from the opera’s carnival scene, hence the overture’s title.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Berlioz wasn’t a child prodigy and started studying music with the aid of text-books at around the age of twelve. His father was an eminent doctor and the first in Europe to experiment with acupuncture. After leaving high school in 1821, Berlioz was pushed off to Paris to study medicine. But medical studies didn’t interest him. In fact, he hated them. He enrolled instead for private music lessons and attended the Paris Conservatoire. Later, as an established composer, Berlioz acquired a penchant for huge musical forces and conducted several concerts with more than a thousand musicians. Considered by some as perhaps the greatest conductor of his era, he achieved further fame with his highly influential Treatise on Orchestration, published in 1844.

Berlioz was one of the most progressive composers of his time and astounded audiences with modern sounds, unexpected musical twists and original harmonies. Although this overture has a lively beginning, the first few minutes are dominated by a lyrical melody first heard on the cor anglais (yes, another one). Even if you don’t know the overture, you may well recognise this tune. Then at 03:40 the carnival really gets going and jollity abounds. There’s brilliant orchestration too, from a past master of the art.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Playing the System

Festivals – without the water

Choral Contrasts

A Farewell to Hams