Monthly Archives: June 2016

All About the Orchestra Challenge

In the first episode of The Great Orchestra Challenge, we meet each of the five competing orchestras as they take on conductor Paul Daniel’s first musical task: the symphony. Daniel has chosen five very different works for each of the orchestras to tackle, by five very different composers. And, to introduce each orchestra to their piece, Daniel goes on a tour around the country to see them all, accompanied by presenter Katie Derham and mentor Chi-Chi Nwanoku.

The Stirling Orchestra are first up, with the finale from Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World’. Daniel conducts the first ten minutes of rehearsal, pelting off at top speed with the orchestra looking slightly bewildered at the pace. ‘You know you’re good, but you don’t do what’s in the parts’, admonishes Daniel genially. ‘You’re not letting the sound come from the bottom, which is where all good sound comes from.’

Meanwhile, around the country, the other orchestras are receiving their symphonies. The London Gay Symphony Orchestra (LGSO) is given Tchaikovsky No. 6, the North Devon Sinfonia gets Beethoven’s Fifth, the Slaithwaite Philharmonic receives Rachmaninov No. 2 and The People’s Orchestra is allocated Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

After Daniel spends time with each of the orchestras, mentor Chi-Chi Nwanoku ‘enters the fray’ for more specialised masterclasses. The most entertaining of these is with The People’s Orchestra in a Birmingham pub, pint of ale in hand.

We get a sense of how important the ensembles are to individuals within the orchestras. Gardener Paula Goodwin was helped to come out as transgender while a member of the LGSO (‘Nobody cares, as long as I don’t play loud, wrong notes!’), and Annie Hill uses her percussion playing as a way of escaping the stress of caring for her husband, who has multiple sclerosis.

All of the orchestras are given quite different advice, from The People’s Orchestra (accuracy and balance) to the Slaithwaite Orchestra (energy and excitement). The North Devon Sinfonia’s conductor Emma Kent has a one-on-one masterclass with Nwanoku, to get her to engage more with the orchestra rather than hiding behind her music.

Before we know it, finals week arrives. All five orchestras descend on the BBC’s Maida Vale studios in London, the home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. They’ll give one final performance before judge Paul Daniel decides who will be leaving the competition at this stage.

‘The most important thing is to enjoy it…’ is amateur conductor Stephen Broad’s pep talk to the Stirling Orchestra, ‘and the second most important thing is not to give up, whatever happens’. All of the players seem quite nervous ahead of their performances, but manage to give good performances nonetheless. North Devon’s conductor Emma Kent has decided to conduct without her score, so there is no chance of hiding behind it.

Finally, decision time. Paul Daniel gives positive and negative feedback to all five orchestras, each represented by their conductor and a member of the orchestra.

But who is leaving the competition?

It’s the Slaithwaite Philharmonic. Despite being technically the most proficient of all the orchestras, Daniel says that they weren’t able to communicate their passion in their performance.

Do you agree with his decision? Comment below, or join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #GreatOrchestraChallenge.

 

The Greatest of Violinists

It’s the instrument that inspired solo masterpieces from Bach to Bartók, that leads the way in chamber groups and symphony orchestras, that is equally at home in gypsy, klezmer and jazz groups alike. Just where would music be without the wonderful violin?

And in the right hands, few instruments can match the violin for displays of thrilling virtuosity, for expressing the full gamut of human emotions and for sheer beauty of sound. As a result, few instrumentalists have had quite the same legendary status as enjoyed by the greatest violinists. In fact, stories concerning the violin and those who play it have sometimes gone beyond the realms of reality – for instance, at his prime in the 1820s, Niccolò Paganini was believed by some to made a pact with the devil himself.

We asked 100 of today’s best players to tell us the violinists who have inspired them most. Each had three choices, with the stipulation that they must have heard them either on disc or live. We totted up the results to produce the following Top 20 of the greatest violinists of the recorded era…

George Enescu

(1881-1955) Romanian

George Enescu was a prodigiously gifted musician whose celebrity was limited by his own modesty and dislike of showmanship for its own sake. Not only a violinist, he was Romania’s leading composer, a distinguished conductor and a teacher whose pupils included Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux, Ivry Gitlis, Christian Ferras and Ida Haendel. From the age of four he studied violin with the gypsy player Lae Chioru and made his first public appearance, aged eight, as a violinist in 1889. Enescu then studied composition and violin at the Paris Conservatoire, supplementing his official violin lessons with the Paris-based Cuban violinist José White. He toured widely as a violinist (both as a solo and chamber musician) and conductor, but regarded his chief vocation as a composer. His unshowily pristine and song-like violin playing is preserved in the few recordings he made in the US during the 1920s, and his 1940s recordings of Bach’s Solo Sonatas
and Partitas.

Classical works about Scotland

This famous concert overture is most commonly known as Fingal’s Cave – the source of its inspiration. After a visit to the island of Staffa in 1829 Mendelssohn was so taken by the echoing waves in the cave’s natural acoustic that he immediately wrote the opening few bars. Sending the music to his sister Fanny Mendelssohn, he wrote “’In order to make you understand how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.’ The piece’s enduring appeal has encouraged people from all around the globe to visit this natural wonder.

A Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch

Despite having never visited Scotland before its composition, the German composer took elements of traditional folk tunes such as Hey Tuttie Tatie, The Dusty Miller and Auld Rob Morris to create this four-movement composition for violin and orchestra. Bruch had a special place in his heart for the music of Scotland, saying that the folk tunes ‘pulled me into their magical circle’. The prominent role of the harp as an accompaniment to the violin is also a nod to Scotland’s earliest music. Highly popular at the time of its premiere, this piece remains one of Bruch’s most famous works.

Scottish Rhapsody by Ronald Binge

‘The mist enshrouded lochs, the calm of the glens, the skirl of the pipes and the swirl of the kilt as the highland fling dances on its with merry way.’ This is the image conjured up for composer Ernest Tomlinson by Binge’s mighty orchestral work. As well as using tunes such as Kelvin Groveand Fairy Dance Reel, the English composer simply wrote in his own melodies where he saw fit, successfully managing to emulate the traditional style.

Four Scottish Dances by Malcolm Arnold

Written in 1957 for the BBC Light Music Festival, these four colourful dances heavily use key features of traditional Scottish music, such as scotch snaps and reels. The composer also used different timbres to imitate the drone of the Highland bagpipes. Though most of the vibrant melodies are original, Arnold did use one written by Robert Burns himself.

Music inspired in autumn

images-26What seasonal playlist could fail to include Vivaldi? From the Allegro’s post-harvest celebrations in ‘Autumn’, Vivaldi’s programmatic music transports us to the somewhat less vibrant morning after, where slow moving suspensions come as close to a musical hangover as anything you’ve ever heard. In the stately final Allegro, ‘The Hunt’, a virtuosic violin solo represents the hunter’s fleeing quarry, which they eventually catch and kill. Not so fun for the quarry, but a jolly old time for all the hunters.

Bax – November Woods (1917)

Though ostensibly inspired by nature, Bax’s November Woods also acts as a musical portrait of his turbulent love affair with pianist Harriet Cohen. An often unsettling work, the tone poem fluctuates between stormy drama and quiet ecstasy, yet fades to a quiet and unresolved finish.

Fanny Mendelssohn – Das Jahr (1841)

Fanny Mendelssohn wrote the piano cycle Das Jahr as a musical diary of the year she spent with her family in Rome. The 12 months are represented by 12 individual movements. In ‘September’ a flowing accompaniment overlays a dark melody in the left hand. ‘October’ is a brighter, march-like song, but ‘November’ returns to introspection and a minor key. She instructs the performer to play sadly.

R Strauss – Four Last Songs, ‘September’

Sometimes considered Strauss’s own musical epitaph, all of the Four Last Songs are themed around death. ‘September’ is a shimmering and uplifting work, which calmly compares the passing of the seasons with the passing of life. Strauss also includes a poignant and wistful solo for his father’s instrument: the French horn.