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Love, in its infinite variety, was in the air at Hoxton Hall on Wednesday evening for a concert of newly-written love songs for solo piano, performed by British pianist William Howard. The event was the first of three marking the culmination of William’s Love Song Project, which began with the release of William’s album of romantic songs without words, Sixteen Love Songs, in June 2016. Having commissioned and performed music by living composers throughout his career, William wanted to explore the possibility of creating a contemporary version of his Sixteen Love Songs, modern songs without words on the theme of love which would connect to the composers featured on the Sixteen Love Songs disc. From an idea discussed while hill-walking with composer Piers Hellawell, the Love Song Project came to be and was met with great enthusiasm by the composers whom William initially approached.  Alongside the commissioned pieces by leading British composers including Robert Saxton, Judith Weir, Bernard Hughes, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Howard Skempton, William launched a composing competition which yielded 526 entries, of which we heard the first, second and third prize winners in the under 25 and over 25 categories.

The subject of love is, of course, the major preoccupation of pop songs and composers of the Romantic period, but has rather fallen out of favour amongst modern and contemporary composers whose focus seems to be more abstract or concerned with the big issues of the day such as climate change or political upheaval. In his introductory talk, William explained that this  “very indulgent” project had revealed a great variety of compositional languages, imagination, moods and character. Many of the works are very meaningful, or highly personal, are easy to relate to and travel far beyond the confines of the strictly defined genre of “classical music”. What the works share is their brevity, and “an overwhelming tenderness for the piano” (Piers Hellawell), and reveal the infinite lyricism and resonance of the piano.

Aside from the championing of contemporary composers, the project has produced a wonderful body of new repertoire for solo piano to suit all tastes.

The audience was invited to give feedback and select favourites from the programme of 12 pieces, but it would be hard to choose one stand-out piece from such a broad range of very fine music. The winning competition entries had clearly been selected with thought, the judges careful to avoid imposing their own stylistic agenda on the pieces, and these were interleaved with commissioned works to create a programme of great charm and variety. The works reflected the myriad facets of love – from tender pieces written for babies or children (‘Camille’ by Joby Talbot, ‘Daniel Josiah is Sleeping’ by Simon Mawhinney) or a partner (‘For Teresa’ by Robert Saxton, which quotes Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, another love song for piano, and is redolent of Schumann’s heartfelt outpourings to Clara in its melodic lines and rich textures). Other works focussed on more abstract aspects of love, or love other than the human kind (‘Arbophillia’ (love of trees) by Samuel Cho Lik Heng, third prize winner in the under 25 category). The programme ended with Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s ‘Love Song for Dusty’, which pays homage to both Dusty Springfield (“a temporary obsession of mine when I discovered that other types of music existed other than ‘Classical’“) in its song structures (verses, choruses, bridges) and pop-infused harmonies, and also to the nineteenth century composers of sweepingly romantic piano solos and songs without words such as Mendelssohn and Liszt. It had a wonderful warmth suffused with wit and humour. William’s sensitive, graceful playing brought to the fore the individual characters of each piece, not an easy task when one is moving between very short pieces of contrasting mood and style.

This was a really delightful evening, made more so by the number of friends and supporters in the audience who together created a very friendly and convivial atmosphere: it felt like a concert for friends and amongst friends – the best kind of music making – and pianists can look forward to the opportunity to explore some wonderful new repertoire.

The Love Song Project concerts continues at Leighton House Museum and Cheltenham International Music Festival in May and June, and include music by Judith Weir, Howard Skempton and Nico Muhly. Details here

PLG Young Artists Spring Series 2017, St John’s Smith Square, 24 April 2017

Joy Lisney, cello

Laefer Saxophone Quartet

Programme:

Gyorgy Ligeti – Solo Cello Sonata
Jan Vriend – Symphonic Dances for solo cello (world premiere)
Richard Rodney Bennett – Saxophone Quartet
Charlotte Harding – Sub to Street, to Scraping the Sky (world premiere)
Joy Lisney – ScordaturA for solo cello (world premiere)
George Crumb – Sonata for solo cello
Giles Swayne – Leapfrog for saxophone quartet (world premiere)
Mendelssohn – Capriccio Op. 81 No. 3 (for saxophone quartet)

The PLG Young Artists Series 2017 at SJSS has a special focus on young artists who are also composers, and the concerts include a number of world premieres by leading composers, as well as young artists performing their own works. A shame, then, that with so much young talent on display, this concert was so sparsely attended. We should be supporting young artists such as these – and composers too, young and old – for by doing so we future proof classical music for the next generation and beyond. Sadly, I suspect the modern and uber-contemporary repertoire, which featured in this engaging programme, was the deal-breaker for most potential audience members – it’s that recurrent “problem” with new music, the anxiety that it will be too esoteric, inaccessible, atonal, discordant, impenetrable….. In fact, this programme contained nothing to offend nor assail the ears, and much to delight and intrigue. There were melodies and lyricism aplenty in all the works performed, and the combination of performers – a solo cellist and a saxophone quartet – made for a varied and interesting evening of music which complemented and contrasted, and all of it was highly accessible, even to the novice listener.

I first heard Joy Lisney at SJSS in 2011. Back then, in her first year at Cambridge, she impressed with her musical maturity and poised stage presence in music by Lutolawski and Chopin. Six years on, she’s now working on her doctorate while sustaining a busy career, as a soloist, chamber musician, conductor of the newly-formed Seraphin Chamber Orchestra, and a composer. This multi-dimensional approach to music making is refreshingly enterprising, but also harks back to nineteenth-century composer-musicians like Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. And there’s something really special about hearing a composer perform their own music – the sense of ownership is very potent and this was certainly the case with Joy’s work. In fact, as Joy explained in her introduction to her piece ‘ScordaturA’, named after the technique of tuning the strings of the cello out of their usual sequence of perfect fifths, and receiving its world premiere at this concert, she found writing for her own instrument particularly difficult, and that spending time writing at the instrument (rather than at her desk) enabled her to find a distinct voice in the music rather than be too heavily influenced by the other repertoire she plays. Having said that, the work pays homage to the Sonatas for Solo Violoncello by Ligeti and Crumb which she also played – it opens with pizzicato figures and strummed strings, motifs which are found in the sonatas. The Scordatura tuning produced striking colours and timbres, while the bariolage string-crossing technique created some very haunting and ethereal sound effects. After a climactic con moto middle section the work subsided back into the harmonic figures of the opening, its ending enigmatic and uncertain. An intriguing and thoughtful work which sat very well with the other music she performed.

The other work for solo cello receiving its premiere at this concert was ‘Symphonic Dances’ by Jan Vriend, a composer with whom Joy has a long-standing creative relationship. This work is dedicated to her and is redolent of Bach’s suites for solo cello (indeed it references the Suite No. 1 in G) in both its motifs and organisation – a sequence of dances of different meters and distinct characters. The work was delightfully varied, virtuosic but never overblown, engaging, witty, and melodically colourful, with much harmonic, textural and rhythmic interest which the composer employs to drive the impression of “symphonic” writing for a single line instrument. The work gave full rein to Joy’s formidable technique while also demonstrating how such technique should always serve the music. This is clearly the type of music she relishes – she’s very alert to rapidly shifting moods, contrasting motifs, expansive writing and technical challenges – and her enjoyment was evident: this was playing suffused with style and energy.

Similarly, her approach to the sonatas by Ligeti and Crumb demonstrated an ease with this type of repertoire. The Ligeti was wonderfully voiced, with a clear sense of dialogue between melancholy phrases and questioning pizzicato chords, and it proved an impressive opener to the concert. Both the Ligeti and Crumb draw inspiration from folk melodies of their native countries, the innate lyricism and expression highlighted by the warm resonant tone of Joy’s instrument and her sensitive shaping of motifs and phrases.

In constrast to the rather more darkly-hued, melancholy works (with the exception of the Vriend) performed by Joy Lisney, Laefer Saxophone Quartet (their name comes from the Anglo-Saxon for “reed” and “sheet metal”) presented works more upbeat in character, performed with style and panache. The saxophone is more usually associated with jazz or big band music, but in these works by Richard Rodney Bennett, Charlotte Harding, Giles Swayne and Felix Mendelssohn (arr. Martin Trillaud), Laefer proved the instrument’s importance, and success, in classical repertoire with fine ensemble playing, crisp articulation, contrasting vibrant and warm tones, close interplay between performers, and a sense of wit and playfulness – most evident in Giles Swayne’s ‘Leapfrog’ (2017). In Charlotte Harding’s ‘Sub to Street, to Scraping the Sky’ the buzzing, bustling, honking of New York City is atmospherically evoked: from the baritone sax’s low rumblings to suggest the rattle and grind of the subway trains, to the soaring skyline, lyrically portrayed by the soprano sax.

This was an impressive opener for a week of concerts at SJSS by PLG Young Artists, with all performers revealing deep commitment to their music making in a wide-ranging and very imaginative programme. In fact, these young people are not the musicians of the future, poised on the threshold of their professional careers: they are the musicians of here and now, fully fledged and ready to make their mark on the world. Please go and hear them and support them.

 

Brahms and Messiaen do not immediately strike one as natural concert programme companions: Brahms teems with polyphony and darkness while Messiaen is about light, timbre, vertical chords, vibrant colour – indeed Messiaen hated Brahms, declaring that “it’s always raining” in Brahms’ music.

But unlikely or daring juxtapositions can create interesting and unexpected contrasts and connections, as one work shines a new light on another, enriching both listener and performer’s experience – and this was certainly my take on this remarkable concert by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich at St John’s Smith Square which combined Brahms’ Sonata in F minor, Op 34b with Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen.

If there are connections to be made between the music that made up this large-scale programme it is that both works are mighty musical edifices, two great mountains which transcend mere notes on the page and which demonstrate each composer’s wish to remain in long moments of emotional distress, relaxation or ecstasy. Both works also display a high level of perfectionism in their structures and organisation, replete with many details, motifs and musical pathways which could easily become blurred in a lesser performance.

Read my full review here

 

(picture credit Neda Navaee)

 

I Musicanti, an ensemble formed in 2013 by double bass player Leon Bosch (formerly principal double bass with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields Orchestra), launched their triptych of concerts at St John’s Smith Square with an afternoon recital featuring the world premiere of a new work by South African composer Matthijs van Dijk as the centrepiece. This arresting piece was bookended by Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat, K493 and Schubert’s evergreen Quintet in A D667, the ‘Trout’.

I Musicanti includes artists who are all distinguished performers, who play in and with the best orchestras in the world, as soloists and chamber musicians. Sunday’s line up featured pianist Peter Donohoe, cellist Richard Harwood, violinist Tamás András and violist Robert Smissen, with Leon Bosch on double bass.

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Leon Bosch (photo: Hyatt Studios)

St John’s Smith Square (SJSS) is now my favourite London venue, alongside Wigmore Hall, and while I and my concert companion were waiting for the recital to begin (there was a slight hiatus due to some mysteriously missing piano music, which was, luckily, found!) we perused the SJSS programme of forthcoming concerts and decided what we would like to hear next….. It really is a lovely venue, with a fine acoustic for chamber music, solo piano, choral and orchestral music, and its staff are friendly and helpful.

This elegant programme was guaranteed to dispel any lingering post-Christmas blues. The Mozart was elegantly-turned, warm and affectionate, while the Schubert rippled along as cheerfully as the eponymous fish, all holiday melodies and sunlit rhythms, with some charming interplay between the piano and the other instrumentalists. Peter Donohoe’s touch was bright and joyful, as befits the character of the music. Throughout the concert, there was a very palpable sense of all the musicians thoroughly enjoying both the music and the act of performing together, creating a lovely atmosphere in the venue. When I commented on this to Leon Bosch after the concert, he declared “I can choose who I work with” and he must be applauded for selecting musicians who display not only equal talent but also a shared sense of purpose and musical friendship.

The new work by Matthijs van Dijk, But All I Wanna Do Is Dance, was composed as a response to the extraordinary and unsettling events of 2016 which seem, in the composer’s own words, to have unleashed “a never-ending wave of anger, frustration, hate and bigotry in all shapes and sizes – all issues that need to be addressed, of course, and, once one is aware of them, unable to ignore”. The work is not intended as “a joyous declaration”, but rather a plea against the enormity of world events, an elegy to our inner child, and a wish to be allowed to forget what is going on, if only momentarily.

A haunting solo on the viola begins the work before it begins to open up with the addition of the piano and the rest of the ensemble. This meditative section is interrupted by febrile rhythms, suggesting lively dancing but always tempered with a sense of frustration and a yearning for the innocence of childhood, a time when one didn’t really know or understand what was happening in the world…..

I Musicanti returns to St John’s Smith Square on 5 March with an afternoon concert featuring another world premiere by South African composer Werner Bosch. Further details here

My first visit to Spitalfields Music and the first time I’ve heard pianist Melvyn Tan live. More importantly, the concert included three premieres, by Rolf Hind, Judith Weir and Jonathan Dove, including a new addition to the ‘Variations for Judith’ which opened the evening.

Composed as a special gift for Judith Serota when she left the Spitalfields Festival in 2007 after nearly twenty years at the helm, the Variations comprise 11 short reflections on ‘Bist du bei mir’ (G H Stölzel arr. JS Bach, realised by David Titterington), composed by other Spitalfields Festival Artistic Directors, all people with whom Judith worked. An initial collection of seven variations was presented to Judith and a further four were added, all by composers associated with the Spitalfields Festival. The Variations hark back to a precedent probably set by J S Bach – a collection of short pieces of varying difficulty – and rather like Anna Magdalena’s Notebook, which Bach presented to his wife, the Variations for Judith were presented to Judith Serota to encourage and inspire her own piano studies.

The pieces which make up ‘Variations for Judith’ are often described as “music for amateur pianists”, and while they may be short and mostly roughly Grade 4-7 level, I would refute the suggestion that these pieces are exclusively the preserve of the amateur pianist. Nor should they be: the suite works very well as a complete concert piece. Each work is unique, portraying its composer’s distinctive compositional style and soundworld, yet they are all connected by the opening theme. In some variations the theme is obvious, in others it is fragmented or subtly veiled. The works are varied in their individual characters, some displaying sparkling wit and humour (those by Anthony Payne and Judith Weir, for example), while others are fragile, tender or lyrical (Thea Musgrave, Jonathan Dove).

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Melvyn Tan

Pianist Melvyn Tan originally premiered the ‘Variations for Judith’ in June 2012 and he is evidently very at home with this music, adept at drawing out each variation’s individual character and alert to the swiftly changing moods of the pieces. In addition to a creating an appealingly translucent sound (helped by a beautiful Steinway D and the acoustic of the venue, St Leonard’s Church), his playing was gestural and sensitive: each miniature was elegantly shaped and coloured. The newest variation by Rolf Hind, premiered at this concert, began with a fleeting sound in the bass and stamping feet, before the main theme emerged. There were chiming bells and plangent bass chords, utilising the timbre and decay of the piano.

The Variations were followed by two more premieres of works by Judith Weir and Jonathan Dove. ‘I’ve turned the page….’ by Judith Weir was a witty musical take on the phrase “I’ve turned the page”, implying that one is start afresh, and each turn of the page in the score brought fresh ideas, from a boisterous dance (page 2) to a haunting twirling melody, then a frenetic rising figure, culminating in treble flourishes and clusters redolent of a Chopin Etude.

Jonathan Dove’s ‘Catching Fire’ was written as a birthday gift for Melvyn Tan (who turned 60 this year), a work which combines elements drawn from the toccata and perpetuum mobile genres, with passages which flicker and shimmer at the far reaches of the keyboard. At times the insistent throb of the music was almost industrial in its sound, while the clever use of repetition and pedal effects called to mind other instruments such as drums and horns rather in the manner of Somei Satoh’s atmospheric ‘Incarnation II’. Tan’s sensitive pacing, dynamic shading and colouristic nuancing ensured the work remained “musical” at all times, and the piece provided an interest complement to Liszt’s three Concert Etudes, which Tan executed with understated bravura.

(picture of Melvyn Tan by Eoin Carey)

Stephen Hough, composer and pianist with The Prince Consort at Wigmore Hall, Friday 28th October 2016

An evening of music for piano and voice by pianist and polymath Stephen Hough, performed by The Prince Consort, with Hough himself playing in the second half, promised to be something intriguing and special, especially as the programme included the world premiere of Hough’s song cycle Dappled Things, dedicated to John Gilhooly, director of Wigmore Hall.

In setting poetry to music, Hough is working within a fine English song tradition that includes composers such as Purcell, Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth and Britten, and indeed there were fleeting musical glimpses of these composers within Hough’s works

Read my full review here

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(picture: The Economist)