Guest review by Doug Thomas

Gavin4_400x400
Gavin Bryars

In 1971, the British composer Gavin Bryars looped the recording of an unknown homeless man singing what was thought to be the religious hymn “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” over a dense minimalistic orchestral arrangement. The result is a mesmerising musical experience; first limited to twenty-five minutes on LP, then sixty minutes on cassette and finally seventy-four minutes with the CD version. Unfortunately, it appears that the old man never heard Bryars’ composition – and the composer himself later came to conclusion that the hymn had actually been improvised by the unknown man. Last Friday, 12th April 2019, a handful of lucky people gathered in the Tanks at London’s Tate Modern to experience for the very first time for a full twelve-hour live performance of the piece.

The event, scheduled at eight in the evening and running until the early morning, was organised so that the audience could stay for the entire duration of the concert, but with constant open doors to allow people to come and go throughout the night. Contrary to Max Richter’s eight hour lullaby “Sleep”, no beds had been arranged; actually no seating had been arranged at all. The audience spontaneously sat, and later lay down, in a semi-circle in front of the orchestras, while some people stood up and moved around, as one would do in a museum room. The orchestras were the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Southbank Sinfonia and the Gavin Bryars Ensemble (including my arranging teacher at university, Audrey Riley). On the side of the orchestras, Street Wise Opera, a choir of people with experience of homelessness, and in the middle of all that, on contrabass and later on the conductor’s seat, Gavin Bryars himself.

The piece started quite spontaneously with no announcement or introduction. And then something happened. To the words of the old man’s voice and the sweetness of the instruments, the entire audience remained silent and immovably mesmerised. Stanza after stanza, the instruments introduced themselves, then the choir started singing. There was the beauty of the music, the honesty of the musicians and the singers, the admiration and attentiveness of the audience. When I checked the time, I realised that what felt like minutes had actually been hours. Throughout the night, members of the orchestra took turns in performing while part of the audience remained, as night owls, until the early morning.

Everything about this experience was right. The venue, which broke with the austere standards of classical concerts venues, and allowed everyone to come, and go. The spontaneous audience: musicians, curious wanderers or simple art and music lovers. The performers: amateurs and professionals gathered around a communal sense of honesty and authenticity. And of course, the music. What had always seemed to me like a beautiful two-dimensional musical painting became a sonic sculptural wrapping, and a unique musical experience. How lucky I feel to have been a little piece of history of minimalistic music.


Doug Thomas is a French composer and artist based in London.

Read more

DONNE Women in Music | Showcase Concert,  St Gabriel’s Church, London, 7th March

Guest review by Karine Hetherington

On the eve of International Women’s Day, I attended a concert at St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico, showcasing women’s music.

Soprano, Gabriella Di Laccio, the powerhouse behind the musical initiative Donne: Women in Music, welcomed us and introduced us to her musicians for the evening: James Akers guitarist, soprano, Susie Georgiadis and pianist Clelia Iruzun. I was pleasantly surprised to see a male musician in the line-up.

Akers produced a Romantic guitar, which is smaller than the classical guitar. I realise that night that my knowledge of the classical guitar was limited to Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream and John Williams. My mother played their records over and over during our childhood in the early 1970s.

James Akers, I learnt, had a few misgivings about the Father of the Guitar, André Segovia. Whilst acknowledging Segovia’s brilliance, he believed that guitar masters had limited the guitar repertoire we have been exposed to. Women composers especially had suffered as a result of Segovia’s promotion of Spanish male composers. This evening was the occasion to redress the balance.

He played works by Emilia Giuliani (1813-1850) who shared the stage with Franz Liszt, and Athénaïs Paulian (1801- c.1875) who was a child prodigy, was well known in British society and had a biography written about her. Prelude 2 by Giuliani was particularly appealing; however Akers’ delicate, dexterous play could have benefited from some amplification in the church. I listened to extracts from his Le Donne et la Chitarra CD later and was struck by the colour and expression he brought to each work. Highly recommended.

Next, Gabriella Di Laccio interpreted songs by Clara K.Rogers (1844-1931) and Avril Coleridge-Taylor (1903-1998). Can Sorrow Find Me by Coleridge-Taylor is a beautiful, dramatic and haunting work. Di Laccio had the power in the higher register but her voice felt a little tight in the lower notes and pianissimos. I was delighted however to hear her sing the same work again on BBC 3’s In tune the following day for International Women’s Day. This time Di Laccio broadcast it to the nation perfectly!

Meanwhile soprano, Susie Georgiadis, performed a variety of Italian and Brazilian songs, all very different in tone and all beautifully sung. Georgiadis’s voice is warm and controlled and rich with emotion.

Most memorable was Cardellina, a charming song about a little bird and Sul Fiume (By The River), an intensely romantic composition. The composer, Giulia Recli (1890-1970), together with many other female composers, appears on Susie Georgiadis’s CD Homage, just out.

The evening ended fittingly with a Brazilian protest song entitled Marielle presente (2018). Composed by Catarina Domenici, in memory of the Rio de Janeiro councillor Marielle Franco, who was assassinated last year, it was a rousing song in honour of those women who had died recently in Brazil for their political activities.

All in all a tantalising introduction to the world of female composition.

Hats off to Gabriella Di Laccio for her remarkably enlightening project, which can only grow and grow.


Both of the CD’s below are available from the Donne Musica online shop.

Le Donne e la Chitarra with James Akers.

Homage: Women Composers from Italy and Brazil – Susie Georgiadis, Soprano & Angiolina Sensale, Piano

Gabriella Di Laccio & Clelia Iruzun
Susie Georgiadis
James Akers

Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer of novels, who also blogs on art and music. Her two published novels, The Poet and the Hypotenuse, and Fort Girard, are set in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Karine promotes singers and musicians performing in the fast-growing Kensington and Olympia Music and Arts Festival. She is also a reviewer for ArtMuseLondon.com

Kate-S-and-Steven-DKate Semmens, soprano & Steven Devine, harpsichord. Weymouth Sunday Concerts, 10 March 2019

When I think of the Notebooks of Anna Magdalena Bach, I imagine a weighty tome, leather bound, filled with album leaves of handwritten music on thick creamy vellum.

Anna Magdalena was the second Mrs Bach and was her husband’s helpmeet, looking after his children and assisting in copying out music part for performance. The two surviving collections of music which have come to be called Anna Magdalena’s Notebooks contain works for keyboard and voice, written by her husband and others, used for teaching and for entertainment. The works are small-scale and domestic and offer an intriguing glimpse into the home life of the Bach family: the children studying their keyboard and composition techniques and the entire family enjoying making music together. Interleaved with verse songs, polonaises and minuets are early workings of pieces which Bach later turned into works regarded today as some of the finest in the entire classical canon, including the Aria which opens the Goldberg Variations and Schlummert ein which was developed into Cantata 82.

Kate Semmens and Steven Devine presented a charming programme of works for voice and keyboard drawn from the Notebooks of Anna Magdalena. Performing on an instrument by Colin Booth, copied from a 1710 harpsichord made near where Bach lived, Steven brought vibrancy and elegance to the music, and for me, someone normally to be found at piano concerts, it was refreshing and instructive to hear a harpsichordist’s approach to aspects such as voicing and articulation. Despite the dynamic limitations of the instrument, Steven brought richness of tone and texture, most keenly felt in an uplifting performance of the Italian Concerto BWV 971.

Kate’s soprano voice is warm, expressive and colourful with clear diction and fine sense of drama and contrast. There was a lovely sense of synergy and understanding between these two musicians which highlighted the intimacy of the music, and both musicians introduced the works on the programme, engagingly setting them in context. This was a intriguing insight into the home life of JS and AM Bach and a delightful afternoon of fine music, beautifully presented.


Weymouth Sunday Concerts are presented by Weymouth Music Club. Now in its 74th season, the club hosts six concerts per year on Sunday afternoons at Weymouth Bay Methodist Church. Further information

Meet the Artist interview with Kate Semmens

Meet the Artist interview with Steven Devine

When is a piano not a piano?

When it submits to the dizzying, audacious Musica Ricercata. The Wigmore Steinway found new voices – drums, horns, tinkling bells and great bellowing bass rumbles – in Roman Rabinovich’s mesmerisingly theatrical and witty performance of Ligeti’s eleven-movement musical algorithm. Based on the Baroque ricercar, the set of pieces are linked by a gradual reveal of pitches and structural progression, culminating in a fugue. This was an ambitious and, for some, uncompromising opening to a concert which also comprised music by Bach and Schubert. As befits this musician who is also an artist, Rabinovich drew myriad colours from the instrument, all infused with a rhythmic bite and vibrant sparkle which took full advantage of the crisp tuning of the piano.

That same rhythmic bite and richly-hued sound palette found a different voice in Schubert’s piano sonata in c minor, D958. Composed in 1828 and completed shortly before the composer died, this is his hommage to Beethoven, and the unsuspecting listener could easily be forgiven for mistaking this for one by the old radical himself. Yet Schubert’s more introspective nature is always there, in the shifting piquant harmonies and mercurial volte-faces of emotion and pace. Those who favour the “Schubert knew he was dying” approach to the last three sonatas would have been disappointed: Rabinovich’s performance proclaimed “Choose life!”, particularly in the rugged (but never earnest) orchestral vigour of that deeply Beethovenian opening movement, and the rollicking, toe-tapping tarantella finale (which had a woman across the aisle from me air-pedalling frantically while jiggling up and down in her seat). The second movement was a hymn-like sacred space of restrained elegance and mystery, oh so redolent of Beethoven in reflective mood, yet unmistably Schubert in its intimacy and emotional breadth.

The Bach Partita, which came between Ligeti and Schubert, tended towards romanticism (no bad thing – I play Bach with a romantic tendency), while the bright sound of the piano afforded some delightful filigree ornamentation.

Based on what I heard last night, I look forward to hearing Rabinovich’s new Haydn piano sonatas recording (the second of which is in production).


Wigmore Hall, Friday 25th January 2019

Ligeti
Musica Ricercata
Bach
Partita in D, BWV828
Schubert
Piano Sonata in C-minor, D958

Roman Rabinovich, piano


Meet the Artist – Roman Rabinovich

On Artistic Process

If you enjoy the content of this site, please consider making a donation towards its upkeep:

Buy me a coffee

An initial approach via this blog in March 2017  led me this week to St George’s Bristol for a lunchtime concert by the sparkling Piano 4 Hands duo (Waka Hasegawa and Joseph Tong).

Last year Josie Dixon emailed me to ask if I might feature her mother, the composer Ailsa Dixon, in my Meet the Artist series. One of Ailsa’s choral works was receiving its premiere as part of the Oriana Choir’s Five15 project. This was rather special because, as Josie explained, her mother had rather “hidden her light under a bushel for the majority of her lifetime”. Ailsa’s interview was published on my Meet the Artist site in July 2017, to coincide with the premiere of her anthem These things shall be, a setting of verses by John Addington Symonds. Around the same time, Josie contacted me again to ask if I knew a piano duo who might be interested in giving Ailsa’s piano sonata ‘Airs of the Seasons’ its first performance. Knowing their fondness for contemporary repertoire for piano duo, I immediately suggested Waka Hasegawa and Joseph Tong (Piano 4 Hands), and was delighted to hear from Josie that they had enthusiastically taken up the piano sonata.

Sadly, Ailsa died in August 2017, just short of her 85th birthday.

In April this year, as I was in the throes of preparing to move from London to the West Country, Josie contacted me again to tell me that Waka and Joseph would be premiering Ailsa’s piano sonata in Bristol on 8 November. As I’d never visited St George’s (considered by many of my musician friends and colleagues to possess the UK’s finest acoustic), nor heard Waka and Joseph together as a duo, I was delighted to join Josie and her family and friends to celebrate the premiere of her mother’s piano sonata.

St George’s, a former church in the graceful, well-proportioned Greek Revival style of the early 1820s, is a really fine venue, and a handsome new extension has added a contemporary bar and social area which perfectly complements the building’s clean neo-classical lines. The concert hall itself retains the columns and balcony of the original church, together with a fine altarpiece. A small illuminated star in the ceiling indicates where a bomb fell through the roof during the Second World War but did not explode. At just shy of 600 seats, St George’s is about the same size as London’s Wigmore Hall.

view-from-great-george-street-for-webbanner
St George’s Bristol with its new extension

The purity of St George’s acoustic combined with Waka and Joseph’s split-second precision, supreme technical assuredness and musical sensitivity brought wonderful clarity and contrasting shading to Mozart’s Andante with Variations KV 501, which opened the concert. This linked neatly to David Matthews’ Variations on a theme by Haydn, which was written for Waka and Joseph. The unsually chromatic theme from the opening of Haydn’s last string quartet is the starting point for this set of 12 variations which initially remain close to the originally theme before moving into wider musical territory, including a tango (Var. 5), a blues variation (Var. 7) and a moto perpetuo (Var. 10). The work has a delightful sense of fantasy suffused with romanticism and musical wit, and ends with a humorous exchange between the two players which Haydn would surely have appreciated. It was evident from the performance that Waka and Joseph really relish this kind of repertoire, which proves that the piano duet is not confined to small-scale salon works.

Ailsa Dixon’s Airs of the Seasons was composed in the early 1990s and is her only substantial work for piano. Its four brief movements are each prefaced by a short poem, evoking in turn the magical stillness after a winter snowfall, the first stirrings of spring, a dragonfly darting over the water in summer, and finally amid the turning leaves of autumn, a retrospective mood which recalls the earlier seasons and ends with the hope of transcendence in ‘Man’s yearning to see beyond death’. The opening chords of the first movement are reminiscent of Debussy and Britten in their timbres, and the entire work has a distinctly impressionistic flavour. Ailsa’s admiration of Fauré for his “harmonic suppleness” is also evident in her harmonic language, while the idioms of English folksong and hymns, and melodic motifs redolent of John Ireland and the English Romantics remind us that this is most definitely a work by a British composer with an original musical vision. The entire work, although quite short, is really delightful and inventive. Rich in imagination, moods and expression, the musical evocation of each season is distinct and characterful – Summer, for example, is not all sunshine as a brief but dramatic storm interrupts the warmth and serenity, while Autumn contains flashes of music from earlier movements to underline its reflective, retrospective mood. From a pianistic point of view, the textures of the music are carefully conceived to bring a range of colours and voicings imaginatively shared between the two players.

Mme Debussy deemed her husband’s La Mer unplayable in its piano four-hands version, but Waka and Joseph made impressively light work of this masterful evocation of water, light and wind (and reminded me of my coastal home in Dorset, currently in the grip of gale force autumnal winds!). Their brilliant pianism complemented by total synergy at the keyboard brought this work to life with vivid drama and passion, and was a thrilling close to an absorbing and varied programme.

img_2202
back row: pianists Waka Hasegawa & Joseph Tong; front row from L to R – Brian Dixon (Ailsa’s husband), Josie Dixon (Ailsa’s daughter) and Frances Wilson (The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Meet the Artist interview with Ailsa Dixon

More about Ailsa Dixon

Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts, Wednesday 24 October 2018

Marie-Louise Taylor, piano

Tribute to Debussy

Arabesque No. 1, Reflets dans L’eau, Prelude from Pour le Piano, Estampes, Clai de Lune, La fille au cheveux de lin, La Cathedrale engloutie, Feux d’artifice


It’s rare to hear Debussy’s piano music played well – and I mean really well. Too often misconceptions about his “impressionism” lead to sounds and motifs muddied by over-pedalling, and rhythmic anomalies abound in passages where the pianist decides Debussy’s written out rubato is simply not sufficient to create atmosphere.

In my first visit to the Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concert series, run by the estimable Duncan Honeybourne (who also performs in some of the concerts), Marie-Louise Taylor (daughter of the pianist and pedagogue Harold Taylor) gave a delightful concert in tribute to Debussy in a programme with charted his development as a composer of exquisite piano music, from his early Arabesque No. 1 (1888) to his final Prelude, Feux d’artifice (1913), a pianistic tightrope act which confirms his modernist credentials.

This elegant programme revealed Marie-Louise as a sensitive Debussy pianist whose precise yet expressive playing was rich in clarity, wit, rhythmic grace and musical understanding. The character of each individual piece was carefully delineated, from the fluid intertwining lines of the first Arabesque to the shimmering Eastern-inspired soundscape of Pagodes and the awesome majesty of Debussy’s sunken cathedral. And all enhanced by immaculate pedalling which brought vibrancy and luminosity to Debussy’s kaleidoscopic musical palette.


Weymouth Lunchtime Chamber Concerts continue on 21 November with a recital commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War with Duncan Honeybourne. Further information