Sunday, 29 August 2010

Summer concerts completed

Well, the summer concerts have gone pretty well. I was a bit under-practiced for the St Barnabas Last Night of the Proms. I'd had a dreadful cold for the previous week and so had had far less energy to practice than I wanted. Some of the accuracy went as a result and I cracked more notes than is customary for me. But the audience still seemed to like it, and I was pleased with my solo "Spanish Ladies" in the Sea Songs.

The organisers are interested in having St Clements Wind Ensemble play a concert there next season, so that's something to work out.

Then in August St Clements Wind Ensemble did their annual trip to the Edinburgh Fringe. We played two concerts, the same programme both days. And very unusually for me, I had never performed any of the works before.

We started with an arrangement by Michael Round for wind ensemble (double wind quintet) of Mozart's Sonata in D Major for 2 pianos. Michael made enough of an effort at matching how Mozart might have arranged it that he wrote the horn parts out in D and in G, and used only notes that could have been reached by hand horns. He commented to me in a break in rehearsals that when he started writing the parts out in F they "just looked wrong". It worked very well. I'm looking forward to hearing the concert recording, and I don't doubt that we will play it again, especially as it has the great advantage of requiring two flutes, unlike any of the Mozart Serenades for wind. (The leader of our group is a flautist, and understandably likes to programme pieces that she can take part in herself!)

Next up was the Spohr Grand Nonet, for violin, viola, cello, bass and wind quintet. It was clearly intended to be a work following in the tradition of mixed wind and string chamber pieces such as the Beethoven Septet and the Schubert Octet. I'd had a run through the piece earlier this year with another group, but had never performed it befoe. It's not the absolutely greatest of pieces of music, but well worth an outing from time to time. The largest problem is balance. With only 4 strings and 5 wind in a very resonant acoustic, there was always a need to keep the wind from overpowering the strings.

After the interval was Lyle Sanford's Timepiece for wind quintet. This was the only piece we played without conductor, and we also chose to perform it standing, partly so we could turn to face each other more easily and coordinate the beat, partly to make us more visible to the audience. All three movements together are only about 10 minutes, and even the heavier instruments such as horn and bassoon can be held standing for that length of time. Lyle had been tremendously helpful prior to the concert in terms of providing information about his intentions and in his willingness to let us shape the interpretation the way he felt it should go.

I have to say it was a delight to play. It's not unreasonably difficult, though the the irregular time signatures in the first and third movements do take a bit of getting used to. The time signatures are 7/4 (approx moderato) for the first movement, an Andante 3/4 for the second, and a 10/8 (3+3+4) allegretto for the third movement. For all that the harmonies and structures are determinedly conventional. The first movement starts with a kind of "ground bass" apreggio rhythm in crotchets on the bassoon, with a slower tune played on the upper woodwind. Sometimes the tune is solo, sometimes as a chorale of two or three instruments, sometimes there is a chorale with a faster countermelody. It's necessary to be alert to when you have the tune and when you have to blend into the background. Towards the end, variations of the faster countermelody are taken as a solo for each instrument in turn before a final determined restatement or the initial ground bass rhythm on all instruments.

The second movement is a peaceful, perhaps slighly mournful slow dance in 3/4, remining me very much of a sadder version of one of Satie's Gymnopedies. It had that steady stately sort of pace about it. it starts with the rhythm being established on horn and bassoon, and a slow tune above. Sometimes the rhythm disappears and you have lines based on the tune weaving in and out of each other, and sometimes the underlying rhythm returns.

The third movement has a Rondo feel to it. I don't know if you're allowed to have a Rondo in 10/8, but this certainly feels like one! The sadness of the previous movement is banished, the feel is light and airy and wholly happy. The structure is similar to the first movement, the rhythm is established as an arpeggio passage in quavers (initially on the flute) and a slower tune based on dotted crotchets and crotchets is passed around from instrument to instrument every couple of bars or so. There are a couple of tricky passages in the middle where the flute, oboe and clarinet each take a quaver of the tune for three bars, a technique called a "hocket" (I had to look up that word in a musical dictionary when Lyle used it in an email - I had never come across it before!)

To my mind, this piece is a real find. The five of us who played it all enjoyed working on it, and we got lots of positive comments from the other members of the group, both about the piece and the performance, and similarly from those members of the audience I spoke to afterwards.

Thank you Lyle! I very much hope to play this piece again sometime.

The last piece was the Brahms Serenade No. 2 in A. This requires the oddest combination of players. Two flutes, piccolo (last movement only), 2 each of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons, and a string section consisting of violas, cellos and basses. No violins! So it's sort of for half an orchestra. And for all that it a sumptuous glorious music, it is vary rarely performed. It doesn't have the fame of his symphonies, it's not quite a chamber work, it falls through the cracks. But it is absolutely authentic Brahms with soaring tunes and lush harmonies. Serenade is exactly the right title for it, it definitely has that evening singing feel to it.