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!