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Jean Sibelius

Sunday, May 29, 2016


Norman Lebrecht - Slipped disc

May 1

Just in: Helsinki U. shuts down Musicology Dept.

Norman Lebrecht - Slipped discFinland’s musical dominance is under threat from cost-cutters. Teachers at the Department of Musicology at Helsinki University have been told that their permanent positions are to be discontinued. Professor Eero Tarasti, author of 103 papapers, says the Department of Musicology has been effectively shut: ‘This means that a bond that has existed since 1640 has been shut down – – and it means a great loss to our national identity’. Our correspondent adds: Musicology at Helsinki University dates back to 1640 when the University of Turku was founded by the order of Queen Christina of Sweden. In 1820s the seat was changed to Helsinki by order of the Russian Tsar Alexander I. Over 375 years, teachers in the Musicology department have included Friedrich Pacius, Robert Kajanus, Jean Sibelius, Leevi Madetoja, Erkki Salmenhaara and Kalevi Aho. Musicology will still be taught at the Sibelius Academy, but the studies there have a different profile: at the Helsinki University the studies in Musicology are more theoretically focused while in Sibelius Academy the focus is on instrumental teaching. Kalevi Aho has addressed a personal appeal to the prime minister: ‘Finland will never be a financial superpower. If we have something to give to the world, it’s art and culture.’

All the conducting master class

May 12

Application deadline in 2 weeks: Masterclass with Atso Almila, Professor of Conducting at the Sibelius Academy, September 9-16, 2016.

Masterclass with Atso Almila, Professor of Conducting at the Sibelius Academy, September 9-16, 2016. www.zlinmasterclass.com The 2016 Zlin Conducting Masterclass aims to provide an ideal learning environment for aspiring professional orchestral conductors. Over eight days, twelve participants will be given expert tuition by Atso Almila, Professor of Conducting at the Sibelius Academy, and Luke Dollman, […]




Classical iconoclast

April 29

Visions of Wonder Debussy, Abrahamsen, Mahler 4 CBSO Volkov

Child-like visions of wonder and excitement : a potentially brilliant concert from the City of Birmingham Orchestra with Ilan Volkov  Hans Abrahamsen's Left Alone was the big draw, the premiere of a major work by an extremely significant composer, noted for his inventiveness and  individuality. Left Alone is a return to Abraham's creative roots, far more characteristic of his style than  Let me Tell You, which may be his Valse Triste, popular but not typical of his music. I hope he gets paid better than Sibelius did.  Abrahamsen isn't the sort of composer you associate with smash hits.  He's hardly ever written for voice. He doesn't need to. "Music is pictures of music", he once said. "That is a strong underlying element in my world of ideas when I compose - as is the fictional aspect that one moves around in an imaginary space of music. What one hears is pictures - basically, music is already there." Abrahamsen's music listens, as a child listens, with purity and wonder.  It's alert to the kind of quiet detail atht gets missed in a world of white noise and bluster. A child doesn't need to prove anything to anyone. He or she can marvel, without precondition.  One of my friends hated Abrahamsen's Schnee (2007) because it "feels like watching snow fall", but for me,that's precisely what I love about Abrahamsen.  Buddhists believe that the path to wisdom lies in divesting oneself of Self and the need to control,. Abrahamsen's music examines sounds form different angles and, importantly, through silence, the antithesis of mental muzak  In Abrahamnsen's Left Alone the concept "the sound of one hand clapping" is uniquely realized.   Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand was written so Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right hand in war.    Perhaps it carries the memory of a lost limb, as often happens to amputees. Abrahamsen's piece feels, however, like an exploration of something entirely imagined. Left Alone moves through a series of six vistas, dark rumblings on the lower keys to bright outbursts in the orchestra. Single notes on percussion blocks tempt the piano forth. At first the piano sounds tentative, as if exploring space. A surge of strings from the orchestra, then a long passage of semi silence,. In fact there are several, passages of semi silence, each one different, so you have to pay attention. Eventually the piano finds its voice, stabbing exuberantly at the keys, the whole orchestra  animated in support. Having thus found itself, the piano can return quietude. Single notes are played, repeatedly. A huge arc of sound from the orchestra, a frenzy of sparkling notes : piano, percussion, winds and strings together. The pace intensifies, bubbling along cheerfully.  Not having a right hand mis not funny, but the protagonist triumphs, nonetheess. Alexandre Tharaud was the soloist.  Preceeding Left Alone was Abrahamsen's orchestration of Debussy Childrens Corner. The connections are clear: six vignettes unified by playful imagination.  In theory, this sense of childlike wonder should have animated Mahler's Symphony no 4, but for me, it largely fell flat. Volkov and the CBSO were brilliant in the first part of the programme, playing with vivacious good spirits.  Maybe they'd enjoyed themselves too much.  Volkov's metier is new music, and the CBSO relish adventure. They've done Mahler 4 often enough  that they can probably coast through and usually (not always) still sound good.  There were problems with the brass, and the timpani felt unusually heavy handed, as if they were playing a military march, which is fine in Mahler but not in Mahler 4  Volkov says "only when you play the whole piece through the last movement makes sense, dynamically and musically". We can't put much store in a soundbite like that, but it did have a bearing on this performance. The final movement refers to the brightness of heaven, and happiness so dazzling that even St Ursula, the warrior, bursts out laughing while her murdered acolytes dance. It is by no means a "cheerful" symphony because the child singing is dead. The voice sounds vulnerable, but in Heaven, it cannot be hurt. Unlike the child in Das irdisches Leben it will not be suppressed.  The dead kid is full of wonder because it's experienced a miracle. The sleigh bells in the first movement are there for a purpose. Sleighs were a mode of transport in difficult conditions, pulled along by the physical strength of horses.  Hence the need for tightness of ensemble and vigorous energy.  Mahler's first movements aren't usually overtures summarizing what us to come, but the first stage in a journey.  Mahler's markings Bedächtig. Nicht eilen and In gemächlicher bewungen. Ohne hast don't in themselves mean slowness but more a kind of transition from the "life" of the first movement to the afterlife of the finale.  If the music lingers, it's to suggest a reluctance to leave a happy past. In some ways, Mahler is saying goodbye to his Wunderhorn years and moving on.  There are many ways to interpret this symphony but it does need a structured point of view.     

Naxos Blog

April 22

Bard lines

Pinpointing the dates of Shakespeare’s birth and death has always involved a margin of error, but arts communities all over the world will be using tomorrow, April 23, as a focal point of reverence for the English playwright and poet, whose passing is generally reckoned to have occurred on this date in 1616. As part of the 400th anniversary of that event, we dip into the Naxos discography to help sketch the role music played in The Bard’s output; and how much a part he himself has played in inspiring composers to pick up their own pens. We’ll bypass the great classical scores that have sustained such characters as Romeo and Juliet, and such stories as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They deserve and receive enough limelight without the need for another candle to be lit for them. Rather, we’ll bring a few relatively unknown characters stage front to take a quick bow. There are vocal settings of Shakespeare’s verses, and then there are instrumental portraits. We’ll start with a composer who produced both. Lots of them. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895–1968) was an Italian composer who was forced to flee his homeland in 1938 in the wake of Mussolini’s anti-Jewish edicts; he arrived in New York the following year, the transition made easier by the friendship and help he received from two musical luminaries, the conductor Arturo Toscanini and the virtuoso violinist Jascha Heifetz. Shakespeare was a constantly fascinating figure for Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who wrote no fewer than eleven Shakespeare Overtures (8.572500 , 8.572501 ). The first, La bisbetica domata (The Taming of the Shrew), had been written in 1930, and Toscanini honoured it with a performance just months after the composer landed in the US. Here’s the overture’s opening, which handily demonstrates Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s colourful handling of orchestral resources . Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s fixation on Shakespeare continued with two operas, The Merchant of Venice (1956) and All’s Well That Ends Well (1957). Earlier in his career, he had set to music 33 songs from the plays (8.223729 ) as well as 35 sonnets. All in all, I think that constitutes a fan club! Before we move on, let’s hear his setting of Take, O take those lips away , from the play Measure to Measure. After Reading Shakespeare (8.559316 ) by Ned Rorem (b. 1923) is a 9-movement suite for solo cello, written in 1981. Four of the movements are titled: Lear Titania and Oberon Portia Iago and Othello Can you pair up each title appropriately with one of the following audio clips?: Extract 1 Extract 2 Extract 3 Extract 4 The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) in part described his Three Sonnets of Shakespeare (ODE1085-2 ) as follows: “I recall that the influence of Benjamin Britten, particularly his Michelangelo Sonnets, lay behind my Three Sonnets of Shakespeare, written in 1951 when I was already a student at the Sibelius Academy but not yet a composition student…In the third sonnet, “Shall I compare”, I consciously set out to prove that it was possible to write solo songs that were not the slow and melancholy images of nature that (I felt) the previous generation of composers had always and exclusively produced.” Here’s that last orchestral song in its entirety . And so to the time of Shakespeare himself. Music played an important role in the Renaissance theatre and Shakespeare brought a new integration and subtlety to its use. In a theatre without lights and sets, it fell to music to underline mood, whether for magic, comedy, feasting or pathos. The Bard exercised control of this element so that his use of music wasn’t merely an occasional diversion to the action. Little direct evidence of the particulars of music used in Shakespeare’s theatres survives, but it’s very likely he had the good fortune to enjoy a particularly close collaboration with two distinguished composers of the time, Robert Johnson (c.1583–c.1633) and Thomas Morley (c.1557–1602). Johnson was indentured to the patron of Shakespeare’s company of players, so it’s almost certain that his settings of Shakespeare’s texts that have survived would have been used in early performances. Here’s an example, Where the bee sucks (8.570708 ) from The Tempest. Thomas Morley also left us a conduit to Shakespeare’s world in the song It Was a Lover and His Lass (8.570708 ) from As You Like It. It seems that the musician and the playwright were neighbours for a while. Morley was organist at St Paul’s Cathedral, an important music theorist, composer and publisher. That his reputation was equal to Shakespeare’s isn’t in doubt. Here’s the first stanza of It Was a Lover . Before we sign off for this week, how did you get on with matching titles and audio clips earlier on? The answers are: Extract 1 – Titania and Oberon Extract 2 – Lear Extract 3 – Iago and Othello Extract 4 – Portia We started with Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s take on The Taming of the Shrew. Let’s end with a clip from Cole Porter’s music for the revision of the play, Kiss Me Kate (8.120788 ), premièred in 1948. What better choice than Brush up your Shakespeare ?!



Classical iconoclast

April 14

Sir Henry Wood, radical : New Music at the Proms

How deep must the malaise in BBC Radio 3 and the Proms go, if it's suggested that "revolution" only came in with William Glock?  The whole concept of the Proms predicates on the radical idea that audiences can rise up to the challenge of good music, whatever it might be. That's a very different concept to the modern idea that music must be dumbed down and made palatable for "popular taste". Sir Henry Wood did not patronize. He made taste; he didn't creep timidly behind it. Glock carried on his his artistic mantle. Sir Henry Wood wasn't a Wagnerian for nothing. Only a generation before him, Richard Wagner had created a revolution with his radical new ideas: the aftershocks of that upheaval being felt for decades.  Wood followed the courage of his convictions, and did what he loved. The very first Prom for which we have full records featured many living or only recently dead composers. Some are still famous, some you have to look up, but Wood and his audiences didn't have rigid preconditions as to what was "difficult" and what was "safe". Sir Henry Wood premiered Schoenberg in 1905, Sibelius in 1903,  Mahler in 1903, 1905, and 1909, Debussy Nocturnes in 1909, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite in 1913, Janáček Sinfonietta less than two years after its premiere and even part of Berg Wozzeck in 1934. The idea that anything new should be feared is in itself nothing new, but the degree to which it's been applied to modern music says more about media manipulation than about music. Until very recently, Schoenberg was demonized for inflicting the 12-tone system, and enforcing the end of tonality. Now he, Berg and Webern are being re-branded by those who realize the "Vienna City of Dreams" myth makes money.  Now, Boulez is the demon du jour to those who think music comes packaged in little boxes. Far from evolving, the BBC Proms are regressing to a time that never was.  Thankfully, there are some interesting things in the 2016 Proms season, some involving new work, some involving new performers (as opposed to safe marketable names). There are other potentally good things, though some mismatch between repertoire and performers. In addition to the Proms I've already picked (more here) here are a few more goodies which may have slipped past the new outlook.  Some are must-gos, some would be fine on radio. Prom 12 Magnus Lindberg, a work so new it has no title, but it's on with Jurowski Beethoven 9 which will be good Prom 26 (4/8)  Oliver Knussen conducts conductor composer Reinbert de Leeuw Der nächtliche Wanderer, a substantial new work of 54 minutes. 20/8  afternoon the London Sinfonietta, exiled to the Roundhouse despite doing Birtwistle, Ligeti, Georg Friedrich Haas and David Sawer Prom 46 (20/8) Gérard Grisey Dérives,  oddly with Mahler songs and Mozart Prom 48 (21/8) Matthias Pintscher conducts his own Reflections on Narcissus (33 min)  Prom 55 (27/8)  Hans Abrahamsen Let Me Tell You.  Celebrity marketing behind this piece. It's hardly typical Abrahamsen, and several times longer than all his vocal work published to date. It's a good piece, but maybe its appeal isn't entirely musical.  OTOH, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the CBSO for the first time at the Proms. From what I've heard of her so far, she's extremely good indeed. The CBSO's track record for spotting talent seems to have worked again.  Prom 57 (28/8)  Thomas Larcher Symphony no 2 (35 min) with Semyon Bychkov and the BBC SO Prom 65 ( 2/9) Baldur Brönnimann conducts Ensemble Intercontemporain in Boulez, Carter, and Bartok.  Perhaps the finest new music ensemble around, one of the best conductors, and a wonderful programme. This is one of the most exciting Proms this whole year, squeezed as it is into the late-night slot which limits the audience since it ends too close to last trains, tubes and buses. 3/9  Bold Tendencies Multistorey Car Park. Don't laugh! Though this sounds gimmicky, I've been told by those who've experienced it that it is rather fun.

Jean Sibelius
(1865 – 1957)

Jean Sibelius (8 December 1865 - 20 September 1957) was a Finnish composer of the later Romantic period whose music played an important role in the formation of the Finnish national identity. His mastery of the orchestra has been described as "prodigious". The core of Sibelius's oeuvre is his set of seven symphonies. Like Beethoven, Sibelius used each successive work to further develop his own personal compositional style. His works continue to be performed frequently in the concert hall and are often recorded. In addition to the symphonies, Sibelius's best-known compositions include Finlandia, the Karelia Suite, Valse triste, the Violin Concerto in D minor and The Swan of Tuonela (one of the four movements of the Lemminkäinen Suite). Other works include pieces inspired by the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala; over 100 songs for voice and piano; incidental music for 13 plays; the opera Jungfrun i tornet (The Maiden in the Tower); chamber music; piano music; Masonic ritual music; and 21 separate publications of choral music. Sibelius composed prolifically until the mid-1920s. However, after completing his Seventh Symphony (1924), the incidental music to The Tempest (1926), and the tone poem Tapiola (1926), he produced no large scale works for the remaining thirty years of his life.



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