An essential discussion for classical music and its institutions to have starts here...
Important, this: a debate on Class, Race, and Classical Music hosted by London Music Masters at the English Speaking Union. Candace Allen (whose piece on this crucial subject you can read here), violinist Tai Murray, and LMMs Executive Director, Rob Adediran, were the panelists who inspired a wide-ranging, controversial, and challenging debate. Up for discussion, among much else, were the idea of who classical music is for, why we think its so important for the whole of society to have access to it, and what the institutions of music education and musical excellence can do to become part of peoples lives in areas of economic impoverishment and communities who wouldnt otherwise have access or opportunity to be involved in this music.
A guide to contemporary classical music by the Guardian's Tom Service has been shortlisted for this year's Royal Philharmonic Society music awards, the most prestigious classical music awards in the UK.
Service's Guardian guide, published weekly for a year, began with Elliott Carter and concluded with Karlheinz Stockhausen. It is nominated for the creative communication award alongside the conductor John Eliot Gardiner, for his book on Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven; classical music iPad apps by Touch Press; and the Channel 4 documentary Chopin Saved My Life.
There can be no hurry when it comes to the St Matthew Passion. Plenty of performances scoot along, almost apologetic for the three-hours-plus that Bach's full score takes to unfold, only slowing up to wallow in the crowd-pleasers. Not so in this thoughtful, lyrical and beautifully spacious Palm Sunday account from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort.
Whereas Butt's steering of the more concise St John Passion, issued last year, is thrilling for its racy, dramatic thrust, here he embraced the Matthew's scope for expansive reflection. The storytelling never dragged but the arias were platforms for deep contemplation often Butt didn't conduct them at all, leaving expressive direction up to the singers and the lithe continuo band.
The ostensible purpose of the Philharmonia Orchestra's three Bohemian Legends concerts in London this spring under Jakub Hra is to celebrate the music of Dvoák and his influence on his Czech compatriots. But the more didactic aim, as the conductor made clear in a short video before this series opener, is to elevate the works of Josef Suk to a more equal position in the Czech pantheon alongside those of Dvoák and Janáek.
If that is indeed the case then, on the basis of the first concert, the verdict is: job done. Suk's 1904 symphonic poem Praga was by some distance the evening's standout interest and performance. Praga is a colossal, affirmative and somewhat overly long celebration of the Czech capital, emerging impressively out of darkness and a roll of drums to the repeated and increasingly powerful invocation of a Hussite chorale first heard on the horns. Yet it somehow manages to avoid bombast and ends in a weighty blaze of orchestral colour to which the Festival Hall organ added its formidable voice. Hra's direction of the piece glowed with conviction from first to last.
JC Bach's symphonies aren't just important because of their influence on the young Mozart. They're signature works of the 18th century and his G minor symphony, Op 6 no 6, is arguably the darkest and most dramatic Bach ever composed
We think of the symphony in the 20th and 21st centuries as the apogee of radicalism and experimentation in the form, as composers strove to create new kinds of thinking and feeling after it was thought to have exhausted itself (not true! as youll know if youve been following this series so far). But to experience a true sense of adventure, novelty and symphonic discovery, you have to cast yourself back to the mid-18th century, and an era in which this self-sustaining species of public instrumental music was still forming itself in the minds of composers and the ears of listeners.
And thats where this weeks symphony, Johann Christian Bachs G minor work, Op 6 No 6, comes in. Composed in the 1760s (definitely before 1769), it was almost certainly on the programmes of the concerts that Bach and fellow composer and impresario Carl Friedrich Abel put on in their series of prophetic and fashionable concerts at Carlisle House in Londons Soho, then St James, and finally at the bespoke concert room they had built at Hanover Square. JC Bach the London Bach: Johann Christian had moved to Britain in 1762, initially to write operas for the Kings theatre, and was music master to Queen Charlotte, but subsequently focused on concertos and symphonies arguably did more to cultivate an appetite and an audience for instrumental music than anyone else of his time. Consisting mostly of Bachs own music, the performances became essential events in Georgian Londons social and cultural calendar, even inspiring this paean from a contemporary:
Where Carlisle house attracts the light and gay
And countless tapers emulate the day,
Valery Gergiev's three-concert sweep through the symphonies of Alexander Scriabin has proved to be one of the most rewarding and genuinely revelatory of his recent projects with the London Symphony Orchestra. Russian music from the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th always brings out the best from him, and to hear rarely played works including Scriabin's Second and Third symphonies delivered with such authority was a particular treat.
As well as those pieces, the final pair of concerts also included Prometheus, the Poem of Fire, which is generally regarded as Scriabin's fifth and final symphony so the evolution of his musical style, and its parallels with what was happening in western European modernism at the same time, were easy to follow. In fact the performance of Prometheus, transferring the darting, flickering world of Scriabin's late piano music on to a much bigger canvas, didn't quite come off. That is mainly because Denis Matsuev tackled the solo-piano part in such a prosaic, unsubtle way, but also because the entry of the London Symphony Chorus in the tumultuous final pages almost went unheard over the orchestra. Elsewhere, though in even the noisiest passages of the Second and Third, Gergiev managed to keep the LSO within sensible bounds, and the quality of the solo wind-playing was exceptional.
To honour Sir Neville Marriner's 90th birthday, Classic FM will tomorrow broadcast nothing but recordings by the distinguished English conductor. The celebration is a reminder of two things. First, Sir Neville's stamina. To be still attending concerts at 90 would be pretty good going. To be conducting them is truly remarkable. Yet Sir Neville conducted his birthday concert at the start of the month to sparkling reviews, has another London date in May, and follows that with three more in Germany. Even in a profession where longevity is not unknown, this is quite something. Second, Classic FM's tribute is a reminder that Sir Neville has made a humongous number of recordings, mostly with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields which he founded in 1958. By some estimates, indeed, Sir Neville has sold more classical recordings than any other musician ever. The man is simply a legend and happily very much a living one.
'When you're geriatric," says Neville Marriner with an amiable laugh, "everybody wants to be there when you collapse." His wife, Molly, joins in the laughter as we take tea in the couple's flat in Kensington, London, but at least one of us is feeling a little uneasy about this turn in the conversation.
I'd asked the conductor, who turns 90 tomorrow, why he thinks he continues to receive so many job offers from around the world. He spent December conducting three different orchestras in Poland, then hopped over to Sweden for another, before conducting a Christmas concert in Düsseldorf. "As I left they said, 'See you in September?' It's very hard to say no." Why? "Optimism or fatalism I don't know. Maybe a hangover from the early days when you'd worry about where the next job was coming from. As soon as something came in, you'd say, 'Yes!' You never get out of the habit."
Six days after their performance of The Dream of Gerontius, Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its Chorus were back at the Barbican with another of Elgar's great choral works. The Apostles was intended as the start of a biblical trilogy that was never completed (Elgar composed its successor, The Kingdom, but got no farther than planning the third part, The Last Judgement) and hearing it so soon after Gerontius emphasised how utterly different the two works are.
One of Elgar's great triumphs in Gerontius is his reinvention of so many of the conventions of the English oratorio on his own terms. But there are passages in the The Apostles, especially in the first half, where that Victorian background is just a little too obvious; the fustian text hardly helps either. It's only in the second part that Elgar's treatment of the passion story really snaps into focus, and what was important to him about the story becomes clear in the weight he gives to different aspects of it. Part two contains the most striking music, too, and that was also where Davis's performance, always intelligently shaped and articulated, really came alive dramatically.
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