Listening in not-quite-darkness, with only the dim light from my bedside clock radio, I heard An Ending (Ascent) by Brian Eno. Of course I recognise it, but not quite in this arrangement. The sounds wash gently over me and in the dark and still of the night, it’s intimate and meditative, almost a lullaby.

Listening again, in daytime, in the surround sound of my kitchen HiFi, the music floats, weightless but for a simple sequence picked out on the harp, now growing in intensity with a soaring violin line over lusher instrumental textures….

It’s a soundworld which perfectly exemplifies the ethos and approach of Orchestra of the Swan and artistic director David Le Page, and which is given full creative rein in their latest release, Labyrinths.  With its exploration of themes of isolation, distance and a longing for human connection, it’s an appropriate album for our strange corona times. It also explores ideas of pilgrimage, contemplation and enlightenment, filtered through a sequence of beautifully atmospheric music, imaginatively arranged and exquisitely performed.

Formed in 1995, Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS) is a chamber orchestra based in Stratford-upon-Avon. Under the artistic direction of violinist David Le Page, an innovative, self-contained musician and one of the nicest people I’ve met in the industry, OOTS is passionate about audience inclusivity and this is reflected in its imaginative and adventurous programmes which blur the lines between genres. Labyrinths is the perfect example of the orchestra and its director’s vision. Devised as a “mixtape”, it continues the spirit of the mixtape of the 1980s (something which many of us of a certain age will remember creating for friends and boyfriends/girlfriends) with a diverse compilation of arrangements and reinterpretations of works by an eclectic mix of composers, which, as the album title suggests, takes labyrinthine twists and turns through music from the 14th century to the present day, from Buxtehude to Nico Muhly, Purcell to Brian Eno, and much else in between to delight and intrigue the listener. The range of musicians is equally diverse, including tenor Nicky Spence, saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes, Guy Schalom on darbuka drum, folk singer Jim Moray, and David Gordon on harpsichord.

the joy is to be found in discovering the surprising and delightful connections between culturally disparate and musically contrasting time periods. Themes of isolation, distance and a longing for human connection are filtered through beautifully atmospheric and exquisitely rendered sound worlds. This last year has been one in which we have all been confronted by the spectre of isolation and have certainly felt the need for face-to-face communication. Labyrinths invites the listener to immerse themselves completely in a sonically rewarding and wholly unexpected musical experience.

– David Le Page, violinist and Artistic Director of Orchestra of the Swan

David Le Page, violinist & Artist Director of OOTS

Labyrinths also celebrates a long tradition of arranging and transcription. This is seen most imaginatively in Jim Moray’s Cold Genius, a modern twist on Purcell’s ‘What power art thou?’ cold song from King Arthur, which in this rendering recalls the iciness of Vivaldi’s Winter with its spikey, slicing string accompaniment to Moray’s hypnotic, pulsing vocals. Or an arrangement of Piazzolla’s ‘Oblivion’, with a haunting clarinet (played by Sally Harrop) and the lush, silky strings of a 1930s cocktail orchestra.

The adventurous spirit of OOTS and David Le Page is evident throughout the album – not only in the arrangements but also the mix of instrumentation, blends of timbres, textures and colours, and the diverse repertoire. There is truly “something for everyone” on this album, and it’s an ideal intro for the classical music ingénue too, with tracks from the world of film, including Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack to Amélie and Max Richter’s ‘On the Nature of Daylight’, which has appeared in films by Martin Scorsese and Denis Villeneuve, and pop music from Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’ from one of their earliest albums to Joy Division’s ‘New Dawn Fades’.

Tenor Nicky Spence joins the orchestra in the ‘Pastoral’ from Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; this is preceded by ‘Bounce’, a new work composed by Trish Clowes during lockdown, a jazzy number with Bernstein-infused rhythms and an infectious sense of joy and freedom. Other highlights include ‘La Rotta’, in which Guy Schalom’s darbuka (a kind of drum) brings a raw, contemporary street sound to this Medieval dance, overlaid with fiddle and saxophone masquerading initially as a shawm, then drone, before taking off into an improvisatory flight of fancy.

And that ambient Eno track? It’s the perfect close to this brilliantly conceived, generous and rewarding recording. 

Highly recommended


Labyrinths is available on the Signum label and on streaming platforms including Apple Music and Spotify

Orchestra of the Swan

David Le Page

Guest post by David Gordon


I am a jazz pianist, harpsichordist, composer, as well as arranger, improviser and educator. I enjoy improvising with and arranging for musicians in the classical world – putting improvisation to work, you might say. I have collaborated extensively, including with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, the London Chamber Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, London Concertante, and now the Orchestra of the Swan, whose leader and artistic director is violinist/composer David Le Page – known almost universally as DLP.

DLP and I have worked extensively and creatively on a variety of projects, and he seems to have a unique understanding of what I, as an improviser, can bring to a largely classical performance situation. So for example I’ve been delighted to engage in the underrated (and sometimes sniffed-at) art of ‘piano continuo’, perfectly suited to, for example, the melodrama of Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill’ sonata, which we recorded, thrillingly, in a filmed concert with the addition of a dancer; and, more in a soloistic capacity, the orchestra’s hugely successful ‘Sleep’ project, which grew out of my propensity to improvise elaborately on the second movement of Vivaldi’s Autumn. DLP’s brilliance as project creator and programme designer has also encouraged me extend my range as arranger and improviser – for example, a concert entitled ‘Mozart in Cuba’, which includes music from both these sources in roughly equal measure, inspired me to write a mash-up arrangement, and also to improvise cadenzas to the A major piano concerto K. 414 in Cuban style. We know Mozart was such a joker that I didn’t need to pause to think whether the composer would have approved.

Arranging is also an underrated art, often seen as something rather commercial, despite the fact that is inextricably linked with the more highly esteemed art of composition. Composers have always arranged: see for example Mozart’s version of Handel’s Messiah, which he subtly brought up to date with the addition of clarinets, horns, trombones and more. For me, the most successful arrangements – not unlike the best interpretations – manage to understand, or at least convincingly speculate about, what might be behind the composition. To give two examples: in my concerto Romanesque, originally for recorder, which was inspired by the abbey church of Moissac in southwestern France, the unsurpassed beauty of the sculpture in the porch doorway of Jeremiah inspired the movement entitled ‘Lamentation’, which I based on a lament by Buxtehude, recast in a different rhythm (a version of this movement for violin on Orchestra of the Swan’s recording ‘Labyrinths’ with DLP as soloist, is out in November on the Signum Classics label). The other, oddly, is that when I’ve approached works of J.S. Bach, the unintentional result is often in an American country style! This has made more sense to me since I learned that American folk music was partly derived from émigré musicians from places such as Germany and Moravia – and in fact one of Bach’s (presumably musical) grandchildren ended up in the States. Things begin to look less far-fetched in this light.

One of the things I love about working with DLP is the way he encourages me to make things up, even when we’re playing classics of the violin and piano repertoire. Perhaps that’s because he knows if I try to play the correct notes it won’t be very good! But I hope it’s because the energy that’s transmitted from that approach can bring freedom to the whole performance. I once worked with a choral director who picked me up on playing a 6/5 chord instead of a 6 chord in the Purcell choral work we were rehearsing. That’s unlikely to be a creative working environment. And a reminder that, while the masterpieces of ‘classical’ music are amongst the greatest achievements of humankind, we cannot afford to forget our sense of ‘play’. It is after all, the word we use to say what we’re going to do when we do music.

I’d like to share with you a piece that encapsulates many of the aspects of music I’ve mentioned: baroque, jazz, arrangement, even collaboration – in this case with the composer. François Couperin’s Les Barricades Mistérieuses is one of the most beguiling and delightful pieces of music for solo harpsichord. One day the idea of reharmonising it came to me, and the result is Mysterious Barracudas – which works equally well on the harpsichord or piano. You can hear a performance here with the extraordinary baroque/jazz crossover group Respectable Groove

– or better still, your own one: I’ve tried to make the score as ‘definitive’ as I can, even if it comes out with some different notes each time I play it.


David Gordon is an improviser, composer and keyboard player. Find out more at his website.

His new arrangement of Buxtehude’s Lamentation (Cantata Klaglied BuxWV76) is included on ‘Labyrinths’, the new album from Orchestra of the Swan, released on 19th November 2021 on the Signum Classics label. More information

Not Now Bernard and other stories is an irresistible album of music for all the family revelling in the magical colours of childhood memories, featuring world premiere recordings of pieces for narrator and chamber orchestra by British composers Judith Weir, Malcolm Arnold, John Ireland and Bernard Hughes, performed by the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Tom Hammond, and narrated by leading actor, TV star, comedian and broadcaster Alexander Armstrong.

The album is the brainchild of composer Bernard Hughes and conductor Tom Hammond. Bernard and Tom have worked together on a number of projects since 2009, including Tom commissioning Bernard’s pieces on the album for two of his orchestras. The aim of this album was to bring together a diverse selection of pieces in high-quality performances, plugging holes in the recorded legacies of great British composers alongside Bernard’s pieces. It was also their ambition to bring a sense of fun to the music, celebrating works that are intentionally enjoyable and funny. Bernard Hughes’s settings of classic children’s stories are the most recent pieces, using vividly imaginative, witty and tuneful music to bring to life three wonderful stories by David McKee and James Mayhew. Alexander Armstrong gives a hilarious and touching performance as narrator, his distinctive voice characterising each piece brilliantly to explore humour and human nature. The result is an engaging, lively and thoroughly entertaining collection of music and words which all the family can enjoy together.

The album is produced by Bernard Hughes himself and is released on 7 February by Orchid Classics, one of Britain’s leading classical labels.


The pieces and the composers

Malcolm Arnold – Toy Symphony. Arnold was one of the towering figures of British music in the twentieth century, whose prodigious output included nine symphonies and over 70 film scores. Composed in 1957 for a musicians’ fundraiser, the Toy Symphony pits a quintet of professional players against a battery panoply of novelty instruments, including a train guard’s whistle, a quail whistle and three parping toy trumpets, to hilarious but brilliantly musical effect. This is one of the few major Malcolm Arnold pieces in his ‘occasional’ style never previously commercially recorded, showing a combination of winning melodies with absurdity.

Judith Weir – Thread! Written in 1981 near the beginning of her stellar career, Thread! is a setting of texts sewn into the Bayeux Tapestry, and is a vivid re-telling of the Battle of Hastings, from the Norman perspective. This piece has also never been commercially recorded, although it is a personal favourite of the composer. An exciting and vibrant piece that deserves a wider audience.

John Ireland – Annabel Lee. A melodrama for piano and narrator in a new chamber arrangement by Bernard Hughes, setting a chilling, atmospheric poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

Bernard Hughes – Not Now, Bernard, Isabel’s Noisy Tummy and The Knight Who Took All Day. These pieces are based on children’s books by David McKee (Mr Benn, Elmer the Patchwork Elephant) and James Mayhew. Originally scored for narrator and symphony orchestra, this recording features the versions for chamber orchestra. In Not Now, Bernard a young boy, neglected by his parents, meets a monster in his garden, with shocking results. Isabel’s Noisy Tummy tells of a girl who is troubled – but eventually redeemed – by a misbehaving stomach. The Knight Who Took All Day tells of a knight confronting a dragon – with the timely help of a princess. All three are enchanting stories told with humour and melodic, friendly music

Not Now Bernard and other stories is released on 7 February by Orchid Classics, one of the UK’s leading classical labels. The album is available to pre-order now.


Orchid Classics website

 

Last week I went up to Stratford to attend a concert given by the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Tom Hammond, a friend and colleague for whom I have been doing some publicity work.

There’s a nice symmetry in all of this because Tom and I first met online through a blog article he wrote, bemoaning the fact that critics and concert reviewers rarely seem to make the effort to travel outside of the M25, or indeed Zone 6 on the Underground, to cover the excellent and varied music-making which goes on outside the capital. The issue came up for discussion at the Music Into Words event I co-organised back in 2016, where an arts editor from a leading broadsheet newspaper basically admitted that they tend only to cover the “premier division” of concerts, and that these are by and large in London. It’s a great pity because there is so much fantastic music-making going on outside of the capital: since moving to Dorset I have attended three excellent music festivals, which, by the way, attract international artists, and Tom is co-artistic director of an excellent music festival based in Hertfordshire – easily accessible by road and rail from London, but largely overlooked by mainstream critics because, despite also attracting international artists, it takes place in what is sneeringly call “the provinces”.

There is nothing provincial about the Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS), nor the programme at Tuesday night’s concert. Led by David Le Page, one of the most self-contained and sincere musicians I have ever met, OOTS can match any London chamber ensemble in its creative programming and outreach and educational projects. Tom had been invited by David Le Page, who is AD of the orchestra, to create a programme and he chose to focus on Jean Sibelius, whose music first attracted him to classical music when he was a child. Some may regard a programme focusing on a single composer as “a list”, but this imaginative programme combined well-known works, such as The Swan of Tuonela and the layered complexity of the Seventh Syphony, with the rarely-performed Humoresques for Violin & Orchestra and excerpts from the Tempest suite. Entitled Intimate Voices, it gave the audience the opportunity not only to experience some of Sibelius’ lesser-known music but to also appreciate the breadth of his musical imagination and artistic development for the programmed spanned the outer limits of his compositional life. It made for a fascinating and absorbing evening, and the orchestra rose to the challenge of this complex, multi-faceted music with great aplomb. They were joined for the Humoresques by violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and there was a very palpable sense of mutual cooperation and enjoyment between soloist and orchestra.

But there was more, beyond the music itself, which made this a particularly enjoyable and uplifting evening, and that was the audience, who filled the Stratford Playhouse auditorium with the kind of warm enthusiasm that many promoters can only dream of. It was quite evident that this audience was as committed as the orchestra, and this created a wonderful sense of a shared experience – which is what music making is all about, after all.

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Tom Hammond conducting Orchestra of the Swan, 21 January 2020

 

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I started composing of my own accord at about the age of 8, without anyone particularly inspiring me or suggesting I do it. I just started writing things down on bits of manuscript paper lying around the house. I remember making up a key signature which combined sharps and flats and showing it to my father, who said there was no such key signature. I didn’t understand why that was, or why I wasn’t allowed to make up my own key signature. As to making a career from music, that was never intended. Most people who write music stop at some point, and I just never stopped.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I had an wonderful music teacher called Gwynne Lewis when I was about 10. He didn’t especially inspire me to compose, but he communicated a love of music and the joy of being involved in music and I carry that with me. I also learned a lot about commitment and integrity from the composer Param Vir. Apart from my teachers the inspiration above all has been Igor Stravinsky. I didn’t discover his music until the shockingly late age of 16 or 17, but once I heard the Rite of Spring I never looked back in my devotion to his music. First hearing the Symphony of Psalms was an unforgettable experience.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

As with all composers, the challenge is to have your music heard. In this I have been pretty lucky, but every composer wants more and higher profile performances and commissions.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Having a particular occasion or performed in mind can really help to shape a piece. When the requirements of the commission and you are aligned it is really fun: writing my narrator-and-orchestra piece ‘Not Now, Bernard’ was one such – I realised it was a story I loved to tell, and that the music could add to. I’m really looking forward to it getting a wider audience on the forthcoming album – I’m very fond of it.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I’ve been lucky to work quite often with the BBC Singers over many years, including on an album of my music released in 2016. The fun of writing for them is also the danger – they can sing anything and make it sound good, but if you push the boat out too far no one else will ever sing it.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My musical language changes with each piece I write, so I don’t have a personal style as such – although I am sure there are recurring tricks if you look for them. Writing a piece is finding a solution to a problem, and when the initial restrictions vary, so does the end result. But when I write a piece like ‘Not Now, Bernard’, which is very tuneful and ‘accessible’, I don’t think of it as any less a ‘proper piece’ than my more avant-garde pieces – they are all aspects of my compositional voice.

As a composer, how do you work?

On a practical level I move between the keyboard, handwritten music notation and the computer. They each have their role within the process – although often first ideas come when I’m on my feet, either walking round my neighbourhood or in the shower. I like the handwritten element because you can trace your ideas back archaeologically if you change your mind. But I also love the opportunity the computer offers to check things like pacing, and complex harmony that is beyond my fingers.

Which works are you most proud of?

It would have to be the two large-scale pieces written for the BBC Singers. ‘The Death of Balder’ in particular, is an original conception – a ‘radio opera’ for choir on a Norse myth – and I am happy with how it turned out, after a great deal of uncertainty while composing it. I also had the opportunity to write an orchestral piece in 2012 called ‘Anaphora’ which again caused me a lot of grief in the creation but which I am in retrospect very proud of.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

As mentioned above, I am a huge Stravinsky fan, and always will be. Of contemporary composers, I really love Judith Weir’s music – she is also an extremely kind and generous person and it was a pleasure working with her on my album Not Now, Bernard and Other Stories, which features the premiere recording of her piece ‘Thread!’ alongside my own music. My current enthusiasm is for a French composer called Guillaume Connesson, who is very little known in this country but I think is brilliant and deserves much wider programming.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I was lucky enough, as a child living in Berlin in the 1980s, to be taken to hear the Berlin Philharmonic a few times. The two occasions I particularly remember were hearing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and – the first time I went – Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 21. I was about 10 and both completely blew me away, just the sound of the orchestra, and I still love both pieces. I also remember, at one of those concerts, the second half being a Shostakovich symphony, which I hated; Shostakovich symphonies still don’t do it for me.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I think it is a responsibility of composers to listen widely, and to music that is not necessarily instantly amenable. I think too many people, young people in particular, are too narrow in their range of listening. In one sense there is no excuse for not listening widely – my excuse as a youngster was that it was difficult to access music, apart from Radio 3 and my local library’s cassette collection. But the flip side is that there is so much music available now that it can be difficult to wade through it all. But it is important for composers to have open ears.


www.bernardhughes.net

21 January 2020 – Stratford Playhouse, Stratford-upon-Avon

Tom Hammond – conductor

Tamsin Waley-Cohen – violin

Orchestra of the Swan


It was the music of Jean Sibelius that first sparked conductor Tom Hammond’s interest in classical music: he found the mystical world of The Swan of Tuonela entrancing on first hearing it. This haunting tone poem opens Intimate Voices, a concert curated and conducted by Tom Hammond with Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan.

In Intimate Voices, Hammond combines his great love of Sibelius’ music with his skill in creating imaginative programmes to explore the musical and personal landscape of Jean Sibelius through his own words and compositions. From the magical sonorities of The Tempest and the stark simplicity of Scene with Cranes to the bold, distilled complexity of the seventh symphony, Sibelius the man is revealed through the intimate thoughts in his letters and the dark, awe-inspiring qualities of his musical imagination.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen joins Hammond and the orchestra as soloist in the rarely-played Humoresques for violin and orchestra – highly virtuosic yet introspective miniatures which reveal the composer’s great love of the violin, and which Hammond believes are musically superior even to the Violin Concerto.

For Tom Hammond, Intimate Voices is “a dream of a programme”, containing some of his favourite music, and an opportunity for audiences to experience Sibelius’ lesser-known works: deeply imaginative and utterly absorbing music that evokes Finnish myths and Shakespeare’s magical isle, pine forests, lakes and snow.

Programme:
The Swan of Tuonela (from Lemminkäinen Suite)
The Tempest, Suite No.1 [excerpts: The Oak Tree, Humoreske, Berceuse, Ariel’s Lied (The Rainbow)]
Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra, Op.89
Kuolema (Valse Triste & Scene with Cranes)
Symphony No.7
Performance date:

21 January 2020 – Stratford Playhouse, Stratford-upon-Avon
orchestraoftheswan.org
tom-hammond.org.uk