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!