The End of Time and the Search for Hope: Shostakovich and Messiaen, Southbank 10 May 2013

This was concert part of a weekend at the Southbank called the Art of Fear. Both pieces were written and premiered during World War 2, under different forms of oppression. Shostakovich was in Russia and aware of any infringement of producing unsuitable music for the regime. Messiaen had been captured by the German Army in 1940. He was moved to Stalag VIII-A near the Poland-German border and piece was first played before an audience inside the camp in 1941.
Shostakovich was thought to be the communist regime’s puppet composer, but more recently its thought he wrote to keep Stalin happy but used ciphers in music to display his contempt. The first movement starts with a serene cello, almost solo for much of the section. There was dissonance at times with the violin and piano contrasting the cello. It started quiet but built to a sound that felt child-like and stomping, it was only reading the programme notes later that I found that Shostakovich was mimicking a goose stepping march.
At times the piece has a dream like quality with an avant-garde improvisational feel. I can’t imagine it being a piece the soviet regime would have welcomed as appropriate for the worker’s revolution.
The Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time begins with an evocation of birdsong, each instrument playing a different tune or bird. A clarinet was added to complete the quartet. Quartet is a slight misnomer as there are long sections where only three or fewer instruments are playing. Each musician showed incredible skill during this piece. Long slow notes followed by flurries often accompanied by a piano setting a different pace to the lead instrument. The slow sections were almost bleak. Imagine being a prisoner of war hearing this. A clarinet or cello giving shape to powerlessness and any desperation you might feel. Each over long note extending the distance you feel from loved ones.
I kept waiting for the hope I’d heard and read about. Maybe it was there in the last violin section. As the last few notes of a beautifully complex piece played out to silence, maybe that was the new horizon.
It was a slow walk back over the bridge to the Embankment and my train. Maybe I just needed time to soak up the sounds and life of London.

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Difficult and sexy music from dark times; Webern, Berg, Bartok & Martinu at the Royal Festival Hall 27 April 2013

As part of the year long The Rest Is Noise festival, the London Philharmonic presented an evening of music written in the 1930s. This was music to reflect the experimentalism of the time and also the descending dark. Introducing the concert the conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, suggested it was one of the most difficult programs of the year for the orchestra, but sounded excited about the challenge. He advised not analysing but letting the music create its physical response in us. It did that, this was an amazing program matched with fantastic playing.
The first piece was Webern’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30. This a later work but is still tied strictly to the 12 note serial technique. Not being a music scholar I have no choice but to let the music hit me without analysis. Music seems to spark from different areas of the orchestra, piling on note series demanding concentrated playing. The only recent thing it reminded me of was Keith Fullerton Whitman’s analog synth workout at Cafe Oto. Here though, was a an seventy year old piece that surprises with changes of tempo and a sound really does generate a physical response.
Next were extracts from Berg’s opera Lulu. The first symphonic part had elements of the romantic but overshadowed by a foreboding, possibly for the destruction and oppression to come in Europe. This was exciting enough but for the second part soprano Barbara Hannigan entered the stage looking all Jessica Rabbit in short fur coat and shorter dress. By now the music was a soundtrack to testosterone, like the lust filled wolf in Warner Brothers cartoons, eyes popping, tongue hanging out and heart pounding. Lulu sings of her value to men in her life and its meaning to her. The later song is Lulu’s lover at her death, declaring her eternal love. I’ve not seen the complete opera but I’ll be there when its done again, especially if Barbara Hannigan is singing.
I wondered how the second half would match this excitement. If anything it was even better. It began with Bartok’s Music for strings, percussion and celeste. Managing to combine rhythm with symphonic grace this music this was edge of the seat music, maintaining the physicality Jurowski hoped for.
Lastly was Martinu’s Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani. This was big, loud music but still able to maintain subtleties from the piano. The larger strings either side of the stage complemented the demanding percussion. At the finish the applause was deservedly resounding. Each element of the orchestra being given its turn by Jurowski. A fantastic evening’s music, give me more.

Soundtracking a Nation: Composing the USA Royal Festival Hall February 22 2 13. Ives Copland Gershwin Joplin

Last time I was at the Royal Festival Hall it was to see Brian Wilson perform the Smile album. A collection of music that aspired to be a great American composition. Here was a different collection coming from various angles to describe a land, surely too varied to be set out in a tune. It was fun to have the conductor, Marin Alsop, talk about about each piece and play extracts before each full performance, although this wasn’t done for the Gershwin, the piece I was most familiar with.
It could be said the Ives piece is all over the place. The variety in pace and mood might sound to some like the composition of a strange man. This piece was Three Places in New England. The more I learn about Ives I find he was strange but as a very average American pop-rock group claimed, people are. My point is that Ives was normal but strange, an insurance man who wrote music to describe a country so varied maybe it could only be done by someone choosing to be a working stiff. This music works beautifully as a sound description of a country I have read about, seen films, art and spent only three weeks visiting. I will go back to this music. It’s complex, slightly mad, vibrant and wonderful.
Copland appears to want to present a specific side of America. This was Copland’s Piano Concerto. The music is an anthem for the wide open spaces and long journeys. I am in thrall to Joni Mitchell’s Amelia, it tells me about an America of vast blue skies, vapour trails and deserts. Copland does this with the music, no need for words just a music that can fill the spaces it describes.
Maybe its the familiarity of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that left the conductor without the need to talk about the piece. Instead it was straight into that opening of the clarinet signaling the start of a tale. Where Copland is about space Gershwin is about the city. It feels like a night out of romance, music and dance. An evening of promise. There is so much music that evokes the city, from seeing a huge 4×4 , hip hop blaring from open windows, to London punks describing the westway. This is a different aspect of the city and again the music goes beyond simple description and visuals.
If Joplin to you, has only meant ragtime, join the club. The piece presented tonight was the Treemonisha suite and showed a composer comfortable with using those influences in orchestration. It was an interesting piece and I really enjoyed being able to hear, above the sound of the orchestra, the banjo picking out a melody.
The last piece was not mentioned in the programme. The composer, James Price Johnson, is far less well known than the others but his Victory Stride is a surprising and interesting piece of Americana. One to seek out, but then they all are.

Links to some of the music mentioned

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

Joni Mitchell – Amelia

Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England – First Movement

Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England – Second Movement

Charles Ives Three Places in New England Third Movement