Saturday, 31 December 2011

Mendelssohn Nocturne

On November 12th, Hillingdon Philharmonic played a concert - 3 movements from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream (the Overture, Scherzo and Nocturne), Bruch's 1st Violin Concerto and Beethoven's 4th Symphony.

Bob Paxman, former owner of Paxman Musical Instruments, Britain's leading manufacturer and seller of French horns, died during the summer after a short illness. Paxmans have put up a tribute to him on their website. Bob was a regular member of our audience at Hillingdon, and would always come round and say "hello" and "well done" to the horns after the concert. This was our first concert after his death, and Stuart, our other regular horn, suggested it would be good to dedicate the Nocturne to Bob, since it is mostly a horn solo. I thought that was a wonderful idea, and so Stuart arranged with the conductor and the chairman that there would be a short announcement at the start of the concert about Bob Paxman and his connection with the orchestra, and how the Nocturne was being dedicated to his memory.

So, I played the solo and made it sound as beautiful as I knew how, to show the audience what a wonderful instrument the horn is and how much horn players need good instrument makers in order to produce those beautiful sounds. At the end, Stuart put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said "Bob would have enjoyed that."

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Strauss at Brent

I've been horrifically busy since the last week of October, with work, a huge eruption of publicity on the child protection issues I've been dealing with over on my other blog, and with three concerts that I took part in in November. So this blog has been rather neglected, as far as writing about music is concerned I've had to restrict myself to making an occasional comment over on Lyle Sanford's Music Therapy blog.

But I have been meaning to write for some time about the concert on 9th November at St John's Wood Church, which the Brent Symphony orchestra incredibly kindly dedicated to the memory of my parents. I played the solo horn part in Strauss 1, and my sister Joanna played solo violin in Tchaikovsky's Sérénade Mélancolique.

With everything that had been else that had been going on in my life, my practice schedule was shot to hell. I had been intended to play the Strauss from memory, but in the end regretfully decided that I shouldn't take the risk. Playing the music from memory looks very impressive, but I take the view that the sound and expression of the performance is the most important thing, and that I was more interested in making it a good musical experience for the audience than showing off my memory skills. So to allow me to avoid stressing about the notes and give the most possible brainpower to the music, I decided to have the music available, on a stand in front of me but fairly low down, where I could refer to it if I needed to but where it wouldn't get in the way of the audience seeing me. It was a compromise that worked. As an orchestral musician by long experience, I have a prejudice towards thinking that memorisation of pieces is a greatly overrated skill!

At the first rehearsal with the orchestra, a couple of weeks before the concert, we discovered that the tempo was dragging. It was only after the rehearsal that I twigged what was going on. I was being an orchestral musician, and I was following the conductor's beat. But he was being a good conductor and listening out for what the soloist was doing. And so we were both following each other and getting progressively slower and slower!

This was a problem easily solved. At the other rehearsal, on the day of the concert, I deliberately turned more away from the conductor and towards the audience, and decided just to set the speed for myself and leave it to the conductor to catch me. By turning away, the conductor's beat was no longer in my eye, only just visible in the extreme corner of my vision, and so the temptation to revert to orchestral beat-following technique was minimised. Also, in the time between the two rehearsals I had put together a few thought on how I intended taking the piece, and emailed them off to the conductor Lev Parikian. These are the points I wrote

1st movement, maybe just a tiny bit faster than we took on Wednesday. I think that was mainly my fault - a lifetime's habits as an orchestral player means that I stick to the conductor's beat. I'll try and lead a bit more.

Opening cadenza: while I will pull the tempo about, the last 2 minims will be in strict tempo, so you can beat those and I'll match you.

After that, the first movement is pretty much in strict tempo. I'll be doing expression by means of articulation and dynamics.

2nd movement, again maybe a tad faster. If I feel it's a bit slow to start, I'll push it on a bit at my second entry, 6 bars before un poco accelerando.

The countermelodies in the clarinet and bassoon can come out as much as you wish - they are 20 feet further from the audience, and it's an additional item of interest in what would otherwise be a straightforward and slightly boring repetition of the tune.

Initial tempo for the last movement was fine.

At the 4/4 section where the cadenza comes back, I will pull back quite a bit at the un poco calando.

Lots of rubato at Mit freiem Vortrag. I'd like to start the rit a bar earlier than written and pull back the tempo a lot by the time we get to the Lento.

The poco piu mosso will be a little bit faster than the rest of the movement, but not very much. I think it is more important that the notes can be heard than that the audience are terribly impressed with it appearing to be taken at meltdown speed. Very little if any rall at the end, only the minimum necessary for me to accent the last 4 notes.

Lev briefly wrote back saying that was really useful. And by and large that is how we took it in rehearsal. I was really fantastically pleased with how the rehearsal went. Everything seemed to gel. A horn in my hand, a fine orchestra behind me, a nice resonant church acoustic, and Richard Strauss. Heaven!

It was such heaven that I probably pushed it a bit harder than was entirely wise in the rehearsal, and so my lip was a bit tired towards the end of the performance. Not enough that any of the audience would have noticed, but just enough to feel a bit uncomfortable. As an amateur musician I get so few chances to play a solo with orchestra. Lesson learned, I'll know better next time, if and when next time arrives.

I think there were sixteen members of the family in the audience. As far as I can remember, it was the largest assembly of family members for any event other then weddings and funerals since my grandparents had a party for their golden wedding anniversary over 30 years ago. They came from as far afield as Glasgow and Southampton. For the first time in years (apart from weddings & funerals), all six of the grandchilden of my Grandma and Grandad West were present. It was a tremendous support having them there.

And the concert went magnificently well. The orchestra started with Schubert's Rosamunde Overture. Then Joanna went on and played the Tchaikovsky absolutely beautifully. She's recently got hold of a magnificent old violin, and in her hands the warmth of its tone completely filled the church.

Then I had to go on. It had been agreed beforehand that I would say a few words about the two charities the concert was in aid of, the Thyroid Eye Disease Charitable Trust and the Alzheimer's Society, and their connection with my parents. And then we had an A to tune to and we were off into the concerto.

And I was really pleased with how it went. If I want to be hypercritical, yes, one or two notes were cracked. But none of the top Bbs, they came out clear as a bell, and I felt that they weren't sounding strained in any way, the acoustic of the hall was supporting me well. And I I got fairly well into a "flow" state where I felt able to become the music, without having to worry much about the notes. Although the music was on the stand in front of me, I barely looked at it. In the first movement the tone was singing out over the orchestra, I was getting the dynamic range I wanted, the slurs were coming smoothly.

I've always found the first part of the slow movement more difficult than the notes would suggest. In performance, the movements follow on after each other without a break, so there isn't all that much time to catch you breath and rest your lip during the orchestral interlude at the end of the first movement before you're off again. The first part of the slow movement is a bit of a test of endurance and smoothness - you want it all to remain fairly quiet because of the need for the contrast with the second theme, but you daren't risk any of the notes not actually sounding, and it still all needs to sound over the admittedly very quiet accompaniment an also of course appear to be effortless. Audiences have no idea how much work goes into making music sound effortless! But I had to increase the effort and concerntation to make sure it all went well.

And then there is the second theme. With a crescendo from the orchestra, you burst out into major key and a truly heroic mode. I took it almost loudest I could make it without the tone turning brassy. I kept a bit in reserve so I could I add just a bit of brassy edge along with additional volume for the G natural at the climax. And then it all winds down quite quickly to a recapitulation of the first theme.

There's one great advantage to Strauss 1 which Lev mentioned at the end of the performance. It doesn't outstay its welcome. Some violin concertos have a slow movement that is as long as the whole of Strauss 1. They wallow. The music is undoubtedly wonderful, but sometimes you wish there could be a little less of it. Not so with the slow movement here. First theme, repetition with countermelodies, second theme, recapitulation, and you're done. Just as well, because then there is the third movement...

The third movement is a wonderful romp. Although it has heroic moments in it, for the most part the words to describe the mood are playful and relaxed. There's lots of expression you can put into the dynamic markings, lots of play into the quavers and smooth relaxation into the slower tunes. You let the flutes through in their little countermelody.. And the tension gradually rises until you break out into the final cadenza "Mit freiem Vortrag", at which point you are in full heroic mode again.

Then the danger is that you run away with yourself in the final passage. It goes faster than the rest of the moment, but it is all too easy to let it run away from you. So even while I was enjoying the cadenza to the max, a voice was whispering in the back o my head "not too fast in the next bit, don't let it get away from you!".

The whole of the last section is essentially one long crescendo.No dynamic mark is given at the start, and even though it is marked con bravura, it needs to start no louder than a solid soloistic mp. Then you can start each phrase progressively one notch louder until you get to a climax with the top Bb. Then you drop down to p again, and then do a much faster crescendo all over again to the end.

And it all went to plan. I didn't overspeed in the last passage. and I got to the end with a great flourish!

I probably lost a pound or so in the course of the performance, just from sweat and nerves. Playing a solo concerto in front of the orchestra is decidedly a different proposition from playing a solo passage from within the orchestra. You are far more exposed, far more on show. You're also standing which is somewhat unfamiliar (though less so for me because I always stand when I practice at home).

But I'm very pleased with how it went. I think that I did justice to the music, and the audience seemed to enjoy it. It was a wonderful way to honour and remember my parents. I think they would have approved.

My playing for the evening was over, but the orchestra's wasn't even half done. They had Bruckner 4 to play after the break. and they did exceedingly well. Although the piece has only 4 horn parts, they used six horns, bumpers on the 1st and 3rd parts, and they made a glorious sound all together with the heavy brass.. At the end I went up to them and shook all their hands and congratulated them. Bruckner is very hard work for the horns.

Lessons to learn. No matter how well a performance goes, there's always something you can take from it with the aim of making it even better next time. Next time I would want a less disrupted practice schedule prior to doing a concerto, and I would go a bit easier in the final rehearsal to conserve my strength for the concert. As a soloist I need to lead rather then follow the conductor, and to remember to do that from the very start of the first rehearsal. There's always something you can hope to do better next time.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Musical decisions

Lyle Sanford has recently written the following on his Music Therapy blog  

Having spent my early years on keyboard, there's the tendency to think of a series of notes as mere switches to be flipped in sequence, but on the horn, more than any other instrument I've ever played, every phrase is more sculptural as it moves from one note to the next, with every note's tone and intensity affecting the next and so on down the line.
This is a very useful realisation. This "sculpting" of notes is not merely something which happens from one note to the next, but you can also change the character of a note during an individual note of any significant length.

You can think of the tempo (including rubatos), tone, volume, pitch and attack as five entirely independent variables which you can can adjust in order to get the musical effect you want.

The number of possible permutations you can choose from is huge. Music notation only gives you the merest clue as to the appropriate combination in any particular circumstance. The rest you have to work out for yourself.

So how do you decide what is the right thing to do?

The first thing is to realise that you actually have a choice. The second is to acquire sufficient technical control over the different aspects of playing that you can vary all these things independently at need. I've described before how to control tone and volume independently of each other, which are probably the hardest two items to separate.

Once you have the technical control, you then need to understand how to use it musically. It's quite hard to describe in words how to do this.

The dots on the page give you the pitch and a general idea about tempo, volume and attack. There may be indications that rubato is appropriate. Notes may have slurs, tenuto marks, accents, staccato dots etc. Very occasionally you'll get some kind of instruction about tone, e.g. dolce or cantabile. But with staccato for instance, you have a considerable choice as to how short you make the staccato and how much of an attack you put into it. With crescendos and diminuendos, you can decide how far you will change the volume, and you can also vary the rate of change of volume during a crescendo. On a long crescendo, I'll quite often save up most of the change of volume for the last bar or two. The notes are just a general description, it is your job to turn them into music.

There is a lot of tradition involved in this. When you are a student, this is one of the concepts your teacher should be introducing, whether or not you realise it at the time. In your early years playing, you sit next to people who have been doing it for longer, you absorb how they do it and you mimic them, consciously or otherwise. Gradually you learn enough to be able to make your own decisions about this, so you aren't merely copying what you have been taught or shown. As a result, traditions change over time, as each new generation of players finds its own approach.

And you also have realise that if you are playing in a group, the sound you produce is part of a composite tone in combination with the other players. For instance the horn can used to warm up a cello tone such as in the opening of Dvorak's 8th Symphony. And there is an amazing moment in Mahler 9, where horns 1 & 2 play a note fortissomo diminuendo, and horns 3 & 4 play the same note piano crescendo, but handstopped. So the overall effect is of a more or less constant volume, but a gradual change in tone colour as the handstopped note takes over from the open. (It's four bars before figure 13 in the first movement, if you want to look it up.) So your choices about how to play any passage also have to be made in the context of what is going on around you.

But ultimately you are there with the mouthpiece to your lips and an audience in front of you, and only you who can decide how you will play the next phrase. Realise that you have a decision, and do your very best to make it sound musical.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Brent Symphony Orchestra memorial concert

My parents, Roger and Janet West, were members of the Brent Symphony Orchestra for many years when they lived in London, until the family moved to Norfolk in 1975. Dad was first clarinet and Mum led the violas, and she would play piano or celeste whenever one was needed for a piece.

In a way, I owe my existence to that orchestra, since my parents met there. They had both attended the inaugural Edinburgh course of the Rehearsal Orchestra in 1957 without meeting, and when my mother came down to London to study at the RCM, Harry Legge, who founded the Rehearsal Orchestra, asked if she would like to come and play in his London orchestra, the Harlesdon Symphony Orchestra as it was called in those days. (The orchestra has been renamed a couple of times in subsequent years as borough boundaries and names have changed, but is now settled on the name Brent Symphony Orchestra.)

She was very willing to join, provided somebody could give her a lift to rehearsals from her digs in Putney. That was arranged, and Dad, who lived that way, was asked to provide the lift! They married about three years later.

I remember one time when they came back home from a rehearsal in fits of giggles. Harry had said something unprecedented for a conductor.

"Violas, you're too loud. You're drowning the trombones!"

When I came back down to London in 1980 to study at university, it was natural to go along to Brent and renew the family acquaintance with the orchestra, which was still being conducted after all those years by Harry Legge.

It so happened that the first rehearsal I went to, neither of the regular horns was there, so there was just me and another new player at her first rehearsal. So we sat ourselves down on 1st and 2nd horn and got on with playing. In the course of the rehearsal, Harry muttered to nobody in particular "Horns turn up - all sounds fine. Horns disappear - still sounds fine!" I was a regular for a while when I was a student, and have occasionally depped for them in the years since.

My mum died in 2003. When my dad died last Christmas, I of course told the people running both orchestras - Rehearsal Orchestra and Brent. Mum and Dad had a great many dear friends in both orchestras, and although few if any of them are still regular players, some of them still keep in touch and come to the concerts.

So I was very touched when Heather Raybould, orchestral manager at Brent, contacted me earlier this year to ask if they could dedicate their November charity concert to my parents' memory, with the proceeds going to a charity associated with them. And she also asked if I would like to play a solo with the orchestra.

I replied immediately, saying I would have to consult with my brother and sisters, but that the answer would undoubtedly be "yes". It was eventually arranged that I would play Richard Strauss' First Horn Concerto, and my sister Joanna (a professional violinist) will play Tchaikovsky's Sérénade mélancolique. In the second half, the orchestra will play Bruckner 4. The concert will be on November 5th, at St John's Wood Church, Lord's Roundabout, NW8 7NE, 7:00 pm. Do please come if you are nearby.

I'm extremely grateful to the Brent Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Lev Parikian for coming up with the idea of remembering my parents in the way, and providing me with an opportunity to give a musical tribute to them. Quite apart from the fact that they were wonderful parents, I learned an awful lot musically from them, when I was Growing up musical. And they in turn learned a great deal of their music, especially orchestral technique, from Harry Legge and the Brent Symphony Orchestra. So it will be a tribute to the orchestra as well as to my parents.

As for the charities to benefit from the concert, I've chosen two.

The first is the Thyroid Eye Disease Charitable Trust, because my mother suffered from thyroid eye disease in her later years, which curtailed her music making because of the double-vision it caused. Her particular talent was for piano accompaniment, in particular sight-reading. And you can't sight-read with double-vision, you can't tell which line the notes are on!

The other charity is the Alzheimer's Society, which deals with all varieties of dementia. Dementia is what finally carried off my father. I hope that any money raised can contribute towards finding a cure both diseases.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Gulda Cello concerto

I had a whale of a time on the Edinburgh Fringe with St Clements Wind Ensemble. We had a fantastic programme for our two concerts in Canongate Kirk.

We started with arrangements by Michael Round for wind ensemble of three Debussy piano preludes: "General Lavine - Eccentric", "Canope" and "Les collines d'Anacapri".

Then we played the three movements with tenor solo from the Schoenberg chamber arrangement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. "Mahler" and "chamber music" don't naturally sit in the same sentence. One associates Mahler with huge orchestral forces - his original orchestral version requires 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 3 oboes (1 doubling cor anglais), 3 clarinets, 1 Eb clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contra), 4 horns, three trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, celesta, harp, mandolin, sundry percussion and strings to accompany the two solo singers. So a chamber arrangement for string quartet, double bass, wind quintet, piano, harmonium and percussion (1 player) really ought not to work at all.

And yet it does. Admittedly, in the opening to the first movement "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" the strings are sawing away madly and can't much be heard above the wind and percussion, but it settles down after that, and you learn something about Mahler which isn't instantly obvious from the large orchestras he asks for. For quite a lot of the time, he uses the forces available in order to construct ad hoc chamber ensembles in varying combinations. And so, Das Lied can be played with a chamber ensemble, you just have to change round the instrumentation. And that is what Schoenberg did with the first movement (the rest of the arrangement was finished off by Rainer Riehn).

Then we played an arrangement for double wind quintet I have put together of Liszt's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody, partly because it is the bicentenary of Liszt's birth this year, and partly because I just plain like the piece, and think it is unfair that pianists have so many good tunes that other players don't get a chance to have a go at! No smaller group would really work, because there are times when the piece is all down in the bass, and I need 4 or 5 instruments capable of managing that range, and sometimes both hands are up around the top of the treble stave. Of course, I gave the opening rather portentious tune to myself to play as a horn solo, but tried to make sure just about everybody had some interesting stuff, and I was really pleased how well it all seemed to fit together.

The last piece in the programme though was the highlight as far as I was concerned, Friedrich Gulda's Concerto for Cello and Wind. On one of the cello forums a contributor has described the piece as "A pioneering work of jazz-rock-classical-marching band fusion". Although it sounds like he's taking the mickey, that is actually a very good and accurate description. It is a completely mad piece, but absolutely tremendous fun to play.

The instrumentation is eccentric. Solo cello, flute doubling piccolo, 2 oboes. 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 trumpets, 2 horns, trombone, tuba, guitar, double bass, drumkit. The guitar and double bass have to be amplified, and so does the solo cello for the outer movements.

The first movement (Overture) opens in big-band style, with a cello riff over percussion accompaniment with an occasional interjection from the brass, and then with a trill and a cadence the mood changes completely, with a gentle tune in the woodwind, taken over by the solo cello with the first horn. Another trill and we are back to big band style.

The second movement (Idylle) starts with a slow gentle chorale for lower brass, the first horn taking the tune initially, before the cello repeats it. And then the mood abruptly changes again into an Austrian ländler, the oboes and clarinets yodelling up and down, before the cello takes over, and the chorale returns for the end.

The third movement (Cadenza) is for unaccompanied solo cello, nearly 7 minutes of it, and Gulda seems at times to take the piss out of over-long and elaborate romantic cadenzas, and also out of the kind of "squeaky gate" music that was all the avant-garde in the 60s and 70s (the piece was composed in 1980)

The Menuett has a renaissance dance feel to it, and also rather reminded me in tone and style of Rondrigo's Fantasia para un Gentilhombre.

The Finale alla Marcia is a rather mad marching band, the horns and trumpets are given full license to make the most raucous din possible "Stürze hoch" (bells up) and the cello has notes flying in all directions. There are elements of Sousa that are entirely recognisable. At one point it all quietens down into repeated chords and it sounded as if the tenor soloist from the Mahler ought at this point to come in singing the Toreador song from Carmen! There is passage designed to sound like a steam train, there are trumpets playing mariachi style. The whole thing is just gloriously crazy. You can't do this piece justice if you merely try and play it, you have to completely throw yourself into it.

We nearly weren't able to perform it at all, as our intended soloist Johannes Osterlee went down with tendonitis a week or so before the concert and couldn't play, necessitating a frantic search for a replacement. We were really lucky to get Thomas Carroll to step in at such short notice, and he played the piece with incredible verve and vigour, and he deservedly had a standing ovation from the audience for both performances.

I can't remember when I last had such a huge grin plastered across my face at the end of a concert!

Monday, 8 August 2011

Bob Paxman

I've just seen the following notice on Paxman's website.

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Bob Paxman.

Bob passed away after a short illness on the morning of Monday 25th July.

A tribute to Bob and information on a service to celebrate his life and achievements will appear here as they become available.

Our thoughts and sympathies are with his family at this time.

Bob Paxman was a director of and until 2000 the owner of Paxman Musical Instruments, the world-famous manufacturer of horns. In 1993 he was awarded the MBE for services to music and industry.

I met Bob a few times, he would come and listen to the concerts of the Hillingdon Philharmonic Orchestra. He would always come round and say "hi" and "well done" to the horns afterwards.

A thoroughly nice man, and a great loss to the world of the horn.

Monday, 18 July 2011

A student experience of Stockhausen

When I was a student at the Royal College of Music in London, one of the professors strongly held the opinion that no potential professional musician should go through college without having played some "modern" music (i.e. something atonal or similarly unpleasant-sounding). Like the music or loathe it, I think he had a good general point, in that musicians owe it to the composer to give a new piece the best possible performance, and to be appropriately trained to do so.

Anyway, one term, he managed to arrange for the college symphony orchestra to play Stockhausen's Carré. (Carré means "squared" in French.) This was a square piece, for 4 orchestras positioned in the 4 corners of the hall. The conductors stood in the corners facing inwards so they could see each other and coordinate the beat, and the orchestras faced outwards each towards their own conductor, with the audience in the middle. Each orchestra was a couple of desks of each of the strings, a varied selection of woodwind & brass, an 8-voice chamber choir, and pretty much a full symphonic percussion section. Maybe a keyboard or two thrown in for good & useless measure.

The piece hadn't been performed in London for 15 years. We soon discovered why.

I can honestly say that this is the only piece I have ever played where for the entire duration of the music I couldn't actually tell whether I was playing the right notes or not. The singers had tuning forks more or less permanently to their ears to try and help them pitch their notes. There were really no cues you could take from the players around you.

The students rapidly took a fairly lighthearted approach to rehearsals, to the annoyance of the professors. There was a harpsichord player in the 4th orchestra, who rapidly cottoned on to the fact that nobody could hear her over the percussion, and practised Bach and Handel throughout the rehearsals.

We all assumed that nobody would want to come & hear this junk, even though RCM concerts were free for the public. When we filed into the hall for the concert, we were astonished to find the place absolutely packed with people standing in the gallery.

We later discovered that someone had publicised the concert in a modern music magazine, and because it was so long since the piece had been played in London, all the atonal music junkies had come to hear it. In London, there are just about enough Stockhausen fans to fill a medium sized concert hall if they all turn up on the same night.

Anyway, all went fine in the performance, we made a raucous din for about 30 minutes. The problem came towards the end. The conductor of the 4th orchestra got lost and out of time with the other three. As a result, in the 4th orchestra we finished about 30 seconds early.

Nobody noticed. We got a standing ovation and a rave review from the Times music critic.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Sometimes, less is more

I had a thoroughly enjoyable concert last Friday with the Hillingdon Philharmonic Orchestra. As it was the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the orchestra, the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the Hillingdon Choral Society and the conductor's 60th birthday, the choir and orchestra held a joint concert. it was a bit of a celebration all round, with the programme full of "lollipops". We had Walton's march  "Crown Imperial" and Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4", Parry's "Blest Pair of Sirens", Vaughan Williams' "Toward the Unknown Region", and the the second half, the overture Die Fledermaus and lots of favourite bits from the operas.

But for me, the most satisfying moment musically was during the quiet second theme of Pomp & Circumstance No. 4. Elgar starts the piece in typically bright and celebratory mood, but the second theme is a slow stately dignified march.

The first violins, all 4 horns, and the first clarinet share the tune, all marked piano. Wind players in an orchestra so rarely have the tune, that when it does appear the temptation is always to play the tune as if it is a solo. But it isn't necessarily so, and this is a case where it isn't. This particular theme is owned by the first violins, the horns and clarinet are there just warm the tone a little bit and smooth it out. So the horns (all 4 of them combined) need to be quieter than the violins.

In the final rehearsal, I realised that the balance wasn't right, that one or two of the horns were playing a solo piano. I briefly explained that we needed to be quieter as it wasn't our tune, we were just supporting the violins. In the concert, they got it exactly right, with just enough sound to support the violins, and it sounded wonderful!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

St Clements Wind Ensemble in Edinburgh

The programme for St. Clements Wind Ensemble in Edinburgh this August has now been worked out. And it is a very ambitious set of works!

Friedrich Gulda: Concerto for Violoncello and wind band. Soloist: Johannes Oesterlee

Mahler arr. Schoenberg/Rainer Riehn: Das Lied von der Erde (chamber version)

Liszt arr. West: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

I've just been having a listen to a recording of the Gulda. It is weird, but sounds great fun! Part chamber work, part jazz, part town band, part cello concerto. The instrumentation is flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 trumpets, 2 horns, trombone, tuba, guitar, double bass, percussion, solo cello.

The Mahler is more familiar. I've not played Das Lied von der Erde before, but I have played various of the symphonies and other song cycles. Schoenberg started working on a chamber arrangement of the first movement, but never competed it, and the conductor Rainer Riehn finished it and the other movements in 1980. I remember hearing it at a late night concert in the Usher Hall in the Edinburgh Festival about 10 years ago. The instrumentation is 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute/piccolo, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/Eb clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, piano, harmonium/celesta, percussion, solo mezzo soprano & tenor.

Mahler normally goes in for pretty huge orchestras, he commonly asks for 6 or more horns in his symphonies and lots of woodwind. So one would expect a chamber version of one of his great works to lose so much that it is unrecognisable. But strangely, it does seem to make sense in this smaller arrangement. But having had a listen to a recording of it, I can tell that I will have a lot of work to do, and will need to be in tiptop condition to make it through. Mahler is hard work when you are merely one horn in 4, 6 or 8, it is going to be much harder when I'm the only horn!

The Liszt is a bit of a romp. It is my own arrangement for double wind quintet of the 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody, with the 2nd flute playing piccolo throughout. Ever since the music was used for a Stella Artois beer advert featuring ice-skating priests, I've been meaning to make a wind arrangement of the piece, and I was prompted to get on with it by Maren Heidemann (who runs SCWE), since this year is the 200th anniversery of Liszt's birth. This will be the arrangement's first performance.

The concerts will be on Monday 15th and Tuesday 16th August 2011, at 5pm
Tickets £10, (concessions.£7) at the Fringe Box Office
and on the door at Canongate Kirk, 153 Canongate, (Royal Mile) Edinburgh EH8 8BN (Venue 60)

If you are in Edinburgh for the festival, do please come and see us!

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Student attitudes at the London College of Music

I've been asked to play a concert with the LCM (London College of Music) Community Sinfonia, performing Shostakovich 5th Symphony at St Barnabas Church in Ealing on May 11th.

On Saturday, there was a day of rehearsals at LCM for the concert. And I was quite frankly appalled at the attitude of many of the LCM students to the rehearsal.

About half the strings didn't turn up at all. I learned that about 8 or so students had originally said they would take part, but had simply not arrived for the rehearsal, with no reason given. The conductor had smoke coming out of his ears, he was so angry about this! And he had every right to be.

The rehearsal was supposed to start at 10am. I arrived with 10 minutes to spare, and found that there were only 3 or 4 people in the rehearsal hall. Various people rolled up over the next half an hour, and we finally got started about 10.20. More students quite casually strolled in even later, not apparently concerned about the fact that they were seriously late. One wind player didn't arrive until the afternoon rehearsal at 2pm, he apparently had had a party the previous night and had overslept. By not being there, you impede the conductor's ability to sort out balance and timing, and to ensure that instructions about beats and tempi need be given out only once. You waste other people's time by not being there when you should.

There was a lunch break from 1pm to 2pm. I was ready in my seat at 2pm, but again, many people were missing. The leader of the orchestra didn't return from lunch until 2.10, and three of the four flutes appeared at 2.15. While exceptional traffic or transport problems can make you unavoidably late for the start of a rehearsal (though you should always allow enough time for all but the most exceptional of conditions), nothing justifies you being late back after a break.

Then there was the attitude to rehearsals. It was quite clear that since the previous rehearsal 10 days before, few of the students had made any serious attempt to practice their parts. And I suspect even fewer had attempted to listen to a recording of the piece to find out how it went. This meant that they frequently got lost and couldn't find their way back again.

Shostakovich 5 is not a simple piece of music. It has complex rhythms and harmonies, and abrupt changes of speed. In the first movement, there are places where the tempo suddenly doubles or halves. Even when the conductor explained exactly how he was going to handle one of these transitions, still it almost always happened that somebody had not listened or understood, and carried on at the old speed. Also on many occasions, players just put their heads down and concentrated solely on playing the notes, giving no regard to whether they were going at the same speed as the conductor's beat. Sometimes there were three tempi going on at the same time. However many or few notes you play, you must go at the same speed as the conductor. Any note played at the wrong time is a wrong note!

Not knowing your part, when you've had ample opportunity to practice, is just not acceptable. As a new young musician starting out in the profession, you will need to be able to compete with people who have performed a piece 20 times, and play it as well as them. Shostakovich 5 is one of the standards of the orchestral repertoire, and this is an ideal opportunity to get to know it when there is no serious pressure. As a student, you should be lapping up every single opportunity to play every piece of the standard reportoire you can get your hands on, so that you don't have to sight-read it professionally. Even though I'm only an amateur, I have played Shostakovich 5 before, more than once, so I do know how it goes. But even so, I had a listen to a recording to remind me about it, since it is a few years since I last played it. It is a courtesy to the conductor and the other players to be as ready as you can be.

If you are a music student wanting to take up music as a career, your task at present is to learn how to be a professional musician. That involves doing more than practicing concertos. Many student musicians (especially violinists and pianists) imagine that they are going to become international soloists, and so will spend their whole careers playing the Tchaikovsky or Sibelius concertos. Phooey. There are about 30 international soloists on the violin in the whole world. There are more violinists than that in any major orchestra. If you are going to make it at all in professional classical music, you are almost certainly going to be in an orchestra. So you must take orchestral technique and rehearsal etiquette seriously. Otherwise, you will wreck your career before it has even begun.

Now, I'm just a former music student who chose not to go into the profession. I only play as an amateur. But even so, I have some tiny influence: for the amateur orchestras I play for, I help with fixing extras, and I keep a list of names and phone numbers for the purpose. Nothing about Saturday's rehearsal has given me any reason at all to get out my diary and take the names of any of the students. For the most part, I simply couldn't trust most of the students present both to turn up and to play, even to the standard necessary to manage an amateur concert on one rehearsal.

Now, suppose I had instead been an amateur player who, instead of leaving the music profession altogether, had gone into music administration, and was involved in fixing extras for one of the major London orchestras. It isn't uncommon after all for those in music administration to have studied music and to have kept it up in an amateur way after they gave up the idea of a professional playing career. If I were in that position, I would have quite likely taken an even dimmer view of proceedings than I actually did, and I might well have decided to made a note of names for the purpose of making sure that they didn't ever play with the orchestra I worked for. Those students' professional careers would have been seriously damaged even before they left college. Such a waste of so much time spent studying, all gone because of a failure to do something as simple as get back from lunch on time.

As a musician, whether you are professional, amateur or student, you are on show all the time you have your instrument with you. In performance and even in rehearsal, you never know who will hear you and see you. So you need to try and make a good impression at every opportunity.

There are far, far more students graduating from the music colleges than can possibly be accommodated by the music profession. Many years ago, I calculated that on the horn, there were probably 10 times more students graduating than there was space for in professional orchestras in Britain. That ratio will vary a bit from one instrument to the next, but it serves to indicate how cutthroat the competition is.

That means that orchestras and other employers need very little excuse to decide against employing somebody. Even outstanding musicians won't get employed if they can't be bothered to turn up on time and prepare their music.

Saturday's rehearsal at the London College of Music was a perfect example of how not to approach the music profession. If any students who were or should have been at Saturday's rehearsal read this, then I have to say that you need to either change your attitude or abandon any idea of playing music professionally, because you just won't make it if you carry on as you are, no matter how well you think you can play concertos. In fact, if you can't be bothered to turn up on time, you won't make it in any profession, never mind one as competitive as music.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Contradictions and meanderings

James Boldin has recently published an article on his blog, in part about playing softly. In it he quotes various authorities on what you need to do to play softly.

They are all agreed on the importance of it, and the need to practice properly, but they have remarkably different ideas about what you do to physically produce soft notes. There are flat contradictions between the different visualisations involved. Everyone has their own idea as to how it is all working, and some of these (possibly most of them) are physiologically wrong. And yet they all work for the people concerned, since they are professional players and teachers who have definitely mastered the art of soft playing.

This is a real problem with wind teaching. Almost everything about wind playing is either happening internally within the body or in minute and outwardly almost imperceptible changes in the embouchure. It sometimes makes me wonder how anybody manages to learn a wind instrument at all!

I don't know "how to play the horn". All I know is how I play the horn. I could describe how I play softly. But would it be of any use to anybody else? I've seen and heard and read so many conflicting ways you should go about playing the horn. Some I agree with, many I don't. I have a few approaches that I haven't heard mentioned by others. They seem to work for me - I claim nothing more for them.

There seems to be such disagreement as to what is going on. If we all disagree, we can't all be right and most of us are wrong. But then there is great disagreement in the best approach even for such apparently simple things as teaching children how to read. And yet most of manage to learn it somehow.

So that's why I've tended to talk here more about musical aspects of horn playing rather than the technical aspects of producing the sound. I've no reason to regard my own particular synthesis of ideas on horn technique as being superior to anybody else's. But musicality is talked about less than technique, and so I feel there is a gap to be filled there.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Brent Symphony Orchestra centenary

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking part in Brent Symphony Orchestra's centenary concert. I'm not a regular member of the orchestra but I have a family connection with it which goes back to before I was born!

The concert was a pleasure on a whole number of different levels. The orchestra is to some extent responsible for my existence, my parents first met as a result of both playing in the orchestra over 50 years ago. (My dad played clarinet and my mum played viola, and were both members for about 18 years, until we moved to Norfolk in 1975.) It was really nice to be able to make a contribution to their centenary.

I was also a regular member of the orchestra myself in my student days about 30 years ago. Harry Legge was the conductor both when my parents were members and when I was. He had been a member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (also playing viola) under Sir Thomas Beecham and Rudolf Kempe, and had learned a lot from both of them as to how to run an effective rehearsal. There are still a few members of the orchestra who have been members continuously since I was there in my student days, so it was a pleasure to meet up again with some old friends. Among those present was the complete horn quartet of the orchestra from my student days.

I well remember a particular occasion from those days. I was at university at the time, and Harry Legge phoned me towards the end of the Easter term. He said "How would you like to get the horns together to do the Konzertstuck next term?"

I gulped, and said "You're joking!". He assured me that he wasn't, and told me to phone round the other horns and see if they were interested in having a go, and get back to him once I'd spoken to them all.
So I phoned each of the others, and in each case got precisely the same reaction from them: "You're joking!" Once I got past that, we decided to have a go together, just the four of us, and see if we could get anywhere near it.

The piece is of course almost impossible to play. But we decided that this was quite likely to be the only opportunity in our whole lives to have a go at it. So we decided to have a bash. I suspect our performance contained more enthusiasm than accuracy!

The centenary concert was also a pleasure in terms of the music we were playing. The mainstay of the concert was Mahler's 1st Symphony. I was playing "bumper", or assistant 1st horn. David Perchard, the first horn of the orchestra then and now, said that I shouldn't regard it as bumping, but more of a jobshare, since there is so much to play. Mahler 1 requires 7 horns, so with the bumper we were 8 in all. We were organised in two rows, and I was in the front row. Usually the horns are at the very back of the hall, over to the left as the audience sees them, and from that position almost all of the orchestra's sound is coming from one direction. But with a second row of horns behind, I really felt surrounded with sound. It's wonderful!

Lev Parikian took over the orchestra whan Harry Legge died, and remains the conductor to this day. He conducted the centenary concert and did a very fine job of it. In the rehearsals, he made a very important point about the Mahler symphony. It is scored for a huge orchestra (4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 7 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 4 percussion players across a variety of instruments, a harp, and as many strings as can be mustered. All those players can make a very big sound. But there are occasions when Mahler writes ppp dynamic markings, and he expects it all to be extremely quiet. It is the contrast beween these extremes which adds to the excitement of the piece.

It's hard work getting an amateur orchestra to play quietly. The players all want to be heard so that they can assure themselves that they are playing the right notes! But there are moments in this piece where if you can hear yourself, you are playing too loud. I don't know if Lev felt that he completely succeeded in getting us all to play as quiet as he wanted, but his exhortations in that direction certainly made a difference.

I think my parents would both have approved.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Learning how to play transposed parts

If you play professionally, or even if you play in an amateur way in a community orchestra,you are going to come across horn parts in keys other than F. When you do so, you have essentially two choices. Either you write every such part out for horn in F, or you learn to transpose at sight.

But it might be that sight reading even in F is a bit forbidding - it is for quite a lot of people. So to be able to read parts in other keys may require that you improve and combine two separate skills - transposition and sight reading.

Sight reading frightens a lot of people - many think that it is a black art only mastered by professionals and not to be vouchsafed to mere mortals in the amateur world. Certainly professionals have to have a high degree of mastery of it, but decent sightreading skills are not beyond amateur players. I have described before how to go about learning sightreading.

Now, for transposition. Writing out transposed parts in F is a good idea in terms of understanding how transposition works. Different people have different ways of thinking about it, but I favour the simple interval method.

Consider for example horn in D. D is down a minor third from F. Most transposing parts are written without key signature, effectively in C major. So down a minor third from C is A. You're now in A major instead of C major. In the part written out in F, write in the A major key signature (three sharps), and then write out all the notes a third down. All the sharps and flats will organise themselves automatically as a result of the new key signature, except for where there are accidentals in the original part, which you have to deal with by hand.

For accidentals you look at the newly-written transposed note before the accidental is applied. If it is a natural, all is simple, just write in the same accidental as in the original. If it is a sharp or flat as a result of the key signature, then what you need to do is change the note by a semitone in the same direction as in the original part. So for instance, if you have an Ab in the original part, moving down a third changes it to F-something. Because of the key signature, A natural goes to F#. Ab is a semitone lower than A natural, so the transposed note must also be lowered a semitone, from F# to F natural. So you write a natural in front of the F.

If you do all that right, you now have a part correctly written out in F. The same principle applies to all the other different keys. The only thing different is the interval and therefore the key signature. These are the most common transpositions.

A - up a third, add 4 sharps to the key signature (to E major)
G - up a second, add 2 sharps to the key signature (to D major)
Eb - down a second, add 2 flats to the key signature (to Bb major)
D - down a third, add three sharps (to A major)
C - down a fourth, add one sharp (to G major)
Bb basso - down a fifth, add one flat (to F major)
Bb alto - up a fourth, add one flat (to F major)

I've left out of that list transposition from horn in E. There are two possible ways of thinking about E transposition. One is to just flatten every written note, the other is to go down a second and add five sharps to the key signature. Both methods work perfectly well, and have the effect of lowering pitch by a semitone.

Of course, notation software such as Sibelius or Finale can do all this automatically, with you typing in the part as written, and then having the software perform the transposition for you. But if you are ever going to transpose at sight, you need to work out how to do it for yourself by hand with pencil and paper.

Now, if you're going to progress from transposing on paper to transposing at sight, three things are necessary. One is that you have got your sight-reading good enough that you don't panic about it. Second, you have to be familiar with your scales and arpeggios and key signatures, and third, you need to have understood thoroughly how to do the transposition on paper.

Then what you do is practice slowly sightreading orchestral parts that have been written for horn pitched in various keys. You'll notice that, particularly for 2nd & 4th horn parts, often almost all the notes are in the C major arpeggio. So if you know your A major arpeggio, transposition at sight from D becomes much easier - you just play the equivalent notes of the A major arpeggio. Give or take an octave, that is only 3 notes that you need to learn!

As the parts go higher, you get more notes of the harmonic series, but again you will relatively rarely see written notes that aren't part of the C major scale. So if you know your A major scale, you're still in good shape. Again, the same principle applies to the other keys. So, transposing at sight is much easier if you know the relevant scales and arpeggios.

As for where to go to get horn parts to practice transposition, I can recommend the IMSLP website. Perhaps start with some of the Mozart symphonies. IMSLP has horn parts available online for some of them, I'd recommend you start with the most famous ones, symphonies 38-41. Then try the Beethoven symphonies.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The value of music education

There's an article on the Guardian website today What's happening to the future of music education? about the future of music provision in the education system in the UK, amid concerns as to whether the government will cut provision in order to save money. Dr Peter Thompson of Sheffield University has commented with an example of the value of music provision, even for those who do not take up music as a profession. His comment is worth reproducing here in full (edited only to remove typing errors).

Back in the bad old days of the 1970s I was a pupil at Whitehawk County Secondary School in Brighton which was rated as one of the worst schools in Britain on one of the worst council estates. I got into serious trouble more or less constantly and did things which, if I were to have been caught would almost certainly have led to custodial sentences. Then I joined the school brass band which had free instruments, free tuition and provided an alternative outlet for me. I ended up joining the army as a junior bandsman and that trajectory was what got me an education and a purpose in life so that I am now a senior academic at a Russell Group university. I owe it all to the music opportunities I had at that school back when I was 11 when there was bugger all else on offer. Cutting music provision is not only a culturally philistine move but will also keep many children in the outer darkness of hopelessness.

Even if you describe this in purely economic terms, this is a staggeringly good investment. Thomson has been saved from a probable life of crime and hopelessness which would in all likelihood have been a substantial drain on the public purse, and instead is a respected academic who has made his own substantial contribution to society, in the taxes he has paid and in the contribution he has made to educating subsequent generations.

This is what music is about, this is what it can do for people.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

My father, Roger West

Over on my other blog, I have published the tribute I gave to my father, Roger West, at his funeral yesterday, 10th January 2011.

Friday, 7 January 2011

The emotion of music making

Last month there was an article in the Guardian titled 'The pull of love' – or why music can be a quasi-spiritual practice. In it, there got to be a bit of a discussion of various aspects of performance, and I'm going to pull out some of the comments I made there, clean them up and put them here.

The commenter jeremyjames made this comment

Incidentally, I asked a horn player chum which frightened him more - the beginning of Bruckner 4 or Mahler 5. He said whichever one he happened to be playing!

I've played both, and if it is to be done well, the solo at the opening of Bruckner 4 is one of the most dangerous moments for a horn player in all classical music. The entry is fairly high, so it is very easy to "crack" the opening note. You can reduce the danger by playing the opening note louder, but that destroys the ethereal effect of the opening. If you do that, you are merely playing the notes and have abandoned the music. The note almost mustn't actually start, instead the audience should realise that it is there when previously it wasn't, but not notice the transition from nonexistence to existence.

The horn player will always be sweating a bit at the start and his concentration will be needle-sharp at the instant of playing that first note. After the first note, you can relax a bit. You know you can do it and the rest of the solo will go OK.

Then savvymum, with whom I've had many enjoyable and stimulating conversations on the Guardian website, made this comment:

I hope he's going to help me explain the difference between listening to music and playing it. There is also the world of difference between playing the piano and playing orchestrally. Not only are different skills needed to sit and rattle off your Rach' and Chopin, but the subjective feelings and critical skills are different., when you are a solitary player. Joining in with a good symphony orchestra is a different ball game, which requires a further set of skills, and a different mindset when you play.

Anyway Jonathan might be able to put the meat onto the bare bones I've laid out here.
I don't think playing is a semi-spiritual practise, and I bet Jonathan and I have done enough of it over the years, so I reckon we know what we're talking about. Sure, I get a feeling that I can't get elsewhere, and it fulfills me in a way that nothing else quite does. In fact I admit to being so bad, I can't live without it, as it actually is my life being a musician.

I could hardly turn down such an invitation!

Great musical performance (or even just pretty good musical performance) requires that you get into the emotion of the work. There is an interesting thing about emotional thinking.

One can simply experience the emotion itself. Almost everybody can do that, and this is all that audiences really need to be able to do to enjoy a good performance.

Then you can also be aware of the emotion in a detached part of your mind, and have some idea as to whether the emotion is appropriate. A surprisingly large number of people haven't really twigged how to do this.

And then you can also direct your emotions, turn them on and off to a degree under conscious control in order to communicate. Very few people are adept at this, but some degree of this skill is essential for musicians.

But it isn't much talked about. Partly this is because it is so hard to put into words. Talking about instruments and techniques is so much easier. Partly it is that few people would understand what you are saying.

Some people, when I talk in this way of awareness and control over emotions, comment that if I'm forever analysing things this way, I can't possibly feel the emotion fully itself. The reverse is true. The additional awareness allows you to have a much richer experience on more levels. You don't feel the emotion any less fully, but the other aspects of the experience are available to you as well.

And when that is wrapped up in a musical performance you are participating in, so you are engaging your motor control skills to produce the music, and your empathy and awareness so you keep up with everybody else, you can get into a state described by the psychologists as flow, which in its more intense manifestations can give you such a sense of euphoria that you can be walking on air for days after. And that gets communicated to the audience, who (hopefully) experience it as a great performance.

If there is no emotional engagement by the musicians, they are concentrating solely on the notes, even the most untrained listener will recognise that there is "something missing" from the performance, even if they can't articulate why.

But the emotion isn't all you have to do.The thing about playing music is that you have to think emotionally and technically at the same time, at very high speed and with great precision. You have to know what emotions you want to convey, but you also have to be concerned at some level with the technicalities of extracting the sound for the instrument, and you have to be highly aware of everything that the other players are doing, so you can be sensitive to what their emotions are and fit in with it all. So collaborative music making requires great skills in empathy as well.

While there's a lot of grinding practice needed to acquire the skills necessary to do all this, the performance itself is a spur of the moment, no going back, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience. You launch yourself into the piece as if you are a canoeist in rapids, and there's no way out except to navigate the obstacles and reach the calm water at the end. And the water won't stop for you while you work out how to get round some particularly forbidding rock that is right in the middle of the stream!

Occasionally you will founder on that rock, and a performance will go horribly wrong. That is part of the fear and excitement - you never quite know what is going to happen. And for an audience, this is the key difference between listening to live music and listening to a recording. Live performance is exciting, not only because you can see what is happening as well as hear it, but because it is happening now and you don't know what is coming next.