Ever wonder what sort of concertos exist for the violin beyond the marvelous mainstays from Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Brahms and Sibelius? Well- there’s a lot out there.
There are a number of tremendous 20th. C concerti that are now pretty well established in the repertoire, such as those by Shostakovich (particularly his First), Barber, Berg, Bartók (particularly his Second) and Prokofiev. Then there are those works which are still relatively rarely sighted in the concert hall, but have been recorded and discussed quite broadly- Korngold’s, Shostakovich’s Second (even greater than the First), the Khachaturian (not a fan!). More recently, there are modern classics by Lutoslawski, John Adams, John Corigliano and Alfred Schnittke. All major works, none heard as often as I’d like live, but all well known among musicians and readily available on disc. Today we’re looking farther out, towards the uncharted frontier of the repertoire.
Of course, there’s no point in directing you towards completely obscure works- if you can’t listen to them, there’s really no point. Here then are 10 pieces you should listen to today. If you can buy the CD, you should- downloading a stream does nothing to support future recordings of unknown music. Vote with your pocketbook for a recording industry that continues to make great music widely available. There’s a lot more out there. This list, while “official” and “all time” is by no means exclusive or complete.
Which works do you think are the unknown gems of the violin repertoire? Share your thoughts in the comments.
The numbering/ordering of the 10 works on this list is completely arbitrary.
Schumann wrote his final orchestral work for his very close friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim expressed great early enthusiasm for the piece, but made a fool of himself during a run through of it with orchestra and then suppressed the work, stipulating it could only be published 100 years after his death. The story of how the work came to light is one of the strangest and funniest in music history. The Violin Concerto has none of the quicksilver wit or boundless fluency of rhetoric that so animates Schumann’s early piano music. Instead, it is austere, strange and often incredibly beautiful music. The slow movement may well be the most haunting few minutes of music written in the 19th C- I can scarcely think of anything so sad and fragile.
John McCabe’s death in 2015 was a devastating blow to British musical life. While by no means an unknown composer, the sheer magnitude of his accomplishment remains somewhat under recognized simply because so many of his major pieces await commercial recordings and regular performances. One such work is his Second Violin Concerto, a large-scale, bold, magnificent work which combines a sort of Bartókian intensity and strength of character with a potent lyrical impulse. It was one of the pieces that those of us who admired and loved John were scrambling to record before he died. I’m still scrambling.
Yes- I am biased. This was the first piece we recorded for my first commercial CD as a conductor (for Avie). It was premiered in 1933 in the days just before Hitler’s ascension to power, when Gál was still one of the leading composers of the German-speaking world. On that occasion, it was performed by the leading German violinist of the day, Georg kulenkampff with the legendary conductor Fritz Busch conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle. The work had to wait 71 years for a second performance. The infinitely seductive, magical opening melody sets the tone for a work of sublime lyricism. It’s been compared often to the now well-established Korngold Concerto, a work I’ve also always loved. The Gál is an even deeper, greater, more important concerto.
Okay, I know the sceptics among you are starting to raise eyebrows. Two Gál concertos in a row on this list? Surely the author is just trying to sell CDs. Say what you will-Gál’s Concertino for Violin and Strings is that good of a piece. I dare say, it’s an even greater work than his magnificent Violin Concerto. And what’s wrong with selling CD’s anyway? The six years since the completion of the Violin Concerto had seen Gál’s life turned upside down. Written just after his family had fled to the UK, it is a work of serene beauty. Gál’s daughter writes of the work that “Gál did not believe in music as a sounding board for the chaos outside, but rather as a place of refuge from the chaos and an affirmation of transcendent values…” Be sure to listen to the astonishing fugue- it’s amazing music, and I was quite pleased with how it turned out in the recording.
One of the highlights of my 2015-6 season (and there were actually quite a few) was getting my first chance to conduct the music of Kurt Schwertsik. I heard his Nachtmusiken at the Mahler in Manchester festival in 2010 and thought it would be the perfect work with which to launch my tenure at the Colorado MahlerFest. Getting to know more of Kurt’s wise, sophisticated and ridiculously beautiful music has been a joyful by-product of that decision, and one of the most thrilling of his pieces is his Violin Concerto no. 2, “Alayzin and Sacromonte” dedicated to his wife Christa (“my personal advisor”). Schwertsik’s wonderfully enigmatic introduction to the work takes the form of a poem:
Under southern skies:
Birdcalls at the break of dawn
Olive trees in the fragrant heat
The wild colors of the dusk
The immensity of space in the night
Through the curtain of stars
I almost forgot the palms
It’s easy to see parallels in the lives of Hans Gál and Mieczyslaw Weinberg- both victims of Nazi oppression who had to rebuild their lives in foreign lands. While Gál escaped to the UK, Weinberg went east, settling in the Soviet Union where he became a friend and duo partner of Shostakovich and went on to compose an enormous amount of music. Like Gál, people are finally starting to rediscover and re-evaluate his vast output, and the Violin Concerto is one of his more wonderful offerings. However, where Gál’s music often comes across as a refuge from the horrors of the world, Weinberg’s Violin Concerto plunges us right into the deep end, a sound world of raw emotion and brutal contrast. It’s high stakes, high powered, very moving stuff.
Hartmann’s Concerto may not really belong on this list. It’s been recorded several times and is something of a modern classic among connoisseurs. On the other hand, Harmann’s music seems all but un-programmable outside of the German-speaking world. I first encountered Hartmann via his magnificent First String Quartet. I heard the piece on the radio- my first reaction was that it seemed there was a Bartók String Quartet I didn’t know, but I quickly detected a distinct musical personality in the music and sat in the car till the end of the work to find out what I was hearing. Within a few days I’d tracked down both quartets, the symphonies and much of the rest of his output and have been trying to perform it, without success, ever since. Written at almost exactly the same time as Gál’s Concertino, Hartmann explores darker places. Maybe some advocacy for this, probably his best-known piece, can help open the doors to more regular performances of his music in the rest of the world.
2016 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Busoni, one of the most influential musical thinkers of the early 20th C. There’s been a certain amount of criticism voiced over the fact that his music will go un-played at this year’s Proms, but it’s not generally easy music to programme. His best known work is his monumental Piano Concerto, a nearly 2 hour long musical behemoth for piano, huge orchestra and male voice choir. The Proms are one of the few organizations that could do it justice, but it would have been a massive commitment of resources. Busoni’s relatively early Violin Concerto is a more user-friendly, if less ambitious, work. I conducted it recently and found it to be rewarding for both the audience and the orchestra. The influence of Brahms and Bruch is easy to spot, and there are some charmingly blatant quotes from the Brahms Violin Concerto and his Third Symphony. Busoni lacks the kind of melodic genius that Bruch and Brahms had in spades, but this concerto is a superbly effective virtuoso vehicle nonetheless, and it has a certain quirky humor to it that I find irresistible. Played by someone like the ever-astonishing Frank Peter Zimmermann, it’s a true tour de force.
I first encountered Rautavaara’s music at Aspen in the 1990’s. We played Angels and Visitations with a ridiculously young conductor on the podium who had a gift for irritating the players like nobody I’ve ever seen. In spite of everyone’s foul mood, the Rautavaara made a huge impression on many of us, and I’ve been struck again and again by the beauty and power of his music. When I raced out to buy Angels and Visitations, I discovered the Violin Concerto in a fantastic performance by Elmar Olivera. Find it. Buy it.
The first work we commissioned in my time at the ESO turned out to be a gem. Written for the violinist Harriet Mackenzie, Pritchard as written synaesthetically in response to the remarkable series of paintings by Maggi Habling, “Walls of Water.” Pritchard’s one movement concerto is a dark and intense work, but also a very beautiful one. I don’t think it will stay on an list of “unknown works” for very long. In fact, I think it’s not unreasonable to believe that all ten of these pieces will soon be off this list.
The rediscovery and reevaluation of the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg is surely one of the more positive stories in classical music in recent years. If this blog post piques your interest in Weinberg, do check out the podcast version of BBC Radio 3’s recent “Composer of the Week” series on him (scroll down the page and click where it says “clip”). Donald Macleod’s description of Weinberg as “the best composer you’ve probably never heard of” is telling. There are now recordings available of most of his orchestral music and more comes out all the time. A major biography is urgently needed. Sadly the only major English-language book on Weinberg is a strangely disinterested and low-energy affair; hardly more than a list of dates, places and works, with fairly little to offer in terms of insightful commentary about, or even perceptible enthusiasm for, the music. It does, at least, cover the basics in a utilitarian way, and is worth reading on that basis. His String Trio is a remarkable work that seems to always have an incredible impact whenever we play it live. My program note for the Trio follows.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919, where he completed his studies as a pianist at the Conservatory in 1939. He had hardly finished his education when he had to flee the German occupation of Warsaw. He managed to escape to the Russian border, but his parents and sister were captured and burned alive. During 1942, Weinberg was a refugee in Tashkent when the composer Israel Finkelstein, a colleague of Shostakovich, took an interest in him. Finkelstein showed Shostakovich Weinberg’s First Symphony, and Shostakovich was so impressed that he arranged for Weinberg to move to Moscow. The two composers forged a close friendship that remained central to both of their lives until Shostakovich’s death in 1975. Weinberg never forgot the role Shostakovich had played in saving his life and was clearly grateful for the inspiration he had taken from him, writing ‘although I never had lessons from him, I count myself as his pupil, as his flesh and blood’. In exchange, Weinberg fostered Shostakovich’s abiding interest in Jewish folk music, and it is around the time of their emerging friendship that Shostakovich wrote his most important Jewish-themed works: the Second Piano Trio, the Fourth String Quartet and the song-cycle ‘From Jewish Poetry’.
The influence of Jewish, gypsy and Moldavian folks themes is pervasive in Weinberg’s String Trio (1950). With his ability to seamlessly integrate folk material, fugal technique and post-tonal harmony, Weinberg in 1950 seems already quite far along in reconciling the old and new, as Penderecki, Kurtág and Schnittke would seek to do a half-generation later. The first movement opens with a gently melancholic tune in the cello and builds to a furious climax, before winding down in a more Klezmer-inflected restatement of the opening. The haunting second movement, an eerie fugue, is the one part of the Trio that is free of folk influence. The finale, on the other hand, is almost pure folk music: emerging over a long, slow-burning ostinato, it builds to a screaming climax of orchestral proportions, before dying away and ending in desolation. It is not known if the work was premiered publicly at the time it was written (it seems unlikely) – it remained unpublished until 2007. Shortly after completing the piece, Weinberg was arrested by the KGB for ‘Zionist activities’ and was only released when Shostakovich interceded on his behalf. When the authorities let him out of prison a few days after Stalin’s death in March 1953, it was Shostakovich he rang first.
c. 2012 Kenneth Woods
A fantastic review from Eric Levi for the recent Avie Records recording of Gál and Mozart Piano Concertos with Sarah Beth Briggs and the Royal Northern Sinfonia in the August, 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine.
“It’s something of a mystery as to why this attractive and accessible work enjoyed only a few performances in Britain and Germany before falling into complete oblivion. Whatever the reasons, I cannot imagine it receiving a more convincing account than the one given here. Sarah Beth Briggs has the necessary breadth and depth of tone and touch to navigate both the barnstorming bravura passages in the first movement and the delicate filigree in the figuration in the introspective slow movement. Her partnership with Kenneth Woods, already a seasoned interpreter of this composer’s works, is also impressive, the conductor securing commitment and incisiveness from the Royal Northern Sinfonia.”
The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.
—?The History of Freedom in Antiquity, 1877
In spite of my deep disappointment and despair at the outcome of last week’s referendum, I’ve been very reluctant to speak out on the issue. As a conductor, one feels a tremendous amount of pressure not to divide one’s audience or alienate potential friends or supporters. One doesn’t want to do or say anything that could have a negative effect on the orchestra or its finances, but, even more importantly, it’s vitally important that concerts be a place where people of diverse views can come together in constructive ways. Music ought to be a unifying presence in our communities whenever possible.
In this instance, there is so much at stake for my children that I feel I have to speak my mind. After all, protecting our children’s future is every parent’s highest priority. My children were born in possession of EU citizenship. I can scarcely think of a more valuable asset to come into the world with- the right to live, study and work in 28 of the most dynamic, culturally vibrant and affluent nations that have ever existed. As a result of last week’s appalling vote, they now stand to lose that citizenship and all the rights, privileges and opportunities that come with it.
To all those who shrug their shoulders and say “well, it’s democracy, we have to live with the result,” I would point out that referendums have been considered the lowest and most dangerous form of democracy since Greek times. Please read and share the Wikipedia article on the “Tyranny of the Majority,” which concisely describes the long history of how societies have tried to protect themselves from the most obvious risk of representative democracy. The right of the majority to rule must be limited to protect the fundamental rights of the minority in any democracy, or society crumbles. The Wikipedia article illustrates how Herbert Spencer in “The Right to Ignore the State” (1851), pointed the problem with the following example
« Suppose, for the sake of argument, that, struck by some Malthusian panic, a legislature duly representing public opinion were to enact that all children born during the next ten years should be drowned. Does anyone think such an enactment would be warrantable? If not, there is evidently a limit to the power of a majority. »
In a free and democratic society, one person or group is not, or should not be, allowed to strip another person or group of their fundamental rights, and citizenship is such a right- it can usually only be stripped by government for serious cause, after due process. Governments have huge latitude over when to grant citizenship to both individuals and classes, but the nature of citizenship is that once bestowed, one’s rights as a citizen are protected in the same way as one’s fellow citizens. In this case, it is legally absurd that a British person’s EU citizenship can be retracted without their consent while a French or German person’s EU citizenship is safe.
The referendum was undemocratic (because the rights of the minority were not protected) and unconstitutional (because it imposes a loss of fundamental rights on a minority).
If membership in the EU was simply a matter of being part of a trading organization that shared certain laws, trade agreements and treaties, one could make the case that voting to extract the nation from those treaties is a relatively simple matter. Voting to strip your friends, neighbours and their children of their EU citizenship is not only not a simple matter, it’s clearly illegal and deeply immoral. It is no less absurd than stripping people of their British citizenship because they grew up on the North side of their street, or stripping people of their American citizenship because they were born on a Tuesday. Stripping an EU citizen of their citizenship because they were born in Dover instead of Calais is equally wrong and unfair. A second referendum ought to not be necessary- I should think the UK Supreme Court would be able to rule the referendum result as invalid, as would the EU Court of Human Rights.
Now is not the time for restraint or resignation when it comes to protecting minority rights of all kinds- Western society, from Europe to the Americas, is closer to fracture and mob rule than at any time in the last 70 years. The economic implications of Brexit have already proven to be far worse than even the most dire predictions of those who advocated a “Remain” vote: world stock markets have seen their biggest-ever two day fall, and the Pound is at a 30 year low as I write. There are reports of widespread acts of racist abuse across the UK. Far Right political parties are more powerful now than any time since 1945, or should I say 1939?
Our politicians’ reaction to this crisis has been shockingly casual- this is not the same thing as losing a football match on a questionable call and accepting the result as a matter of sportsmanship. Lives, societies, economies and fundamental human rights are at stake. A multi-party statement including key members of both Leave and Remain groups can and should be issued which says that while the referendum has shown the urgent need for reform of European institutions, and demonstrated the huge risks to the world economy and European stability of a failure to reform, that the invocation of Article 50 would be unconstitutional, a violation of widely accepted human rights law, and would cause irreparable damage to the British and European economy and social order, and that, therefore, Article 50 must never, and will never, be triggered.
The world is watching and history is already judging. Shrug and the window of opportunity to stop this madness may close. When we make mob rule the law of the land, everything is over. If and when people realise that nobody is going to stop Brexit, I fear the events of the last 72 hours are going to look quaint.
The nearly-washed-up conductor Robert von Bohyarti, former Decca recording artist and long-time conductor of the Minneapolis Philharmonia, is considering launching a solo violin career, it has been learned. Bohyarti, whose instrument is the piano, is reported to feel “a little bored at this stage conducing the same handful of Beethoven and Brahms symphonies over and over again,” saying “I find myself craving new challenges and new repertoire.”
While colleagues in the orchestra wished von Bohyarti well should he choose to pursue a career as a violin soloist, a number of them expressed skepticism about the conductor’s motives for his career change. “I wouldn’t say von Bohyarti is completely nearly-washed-up,” said principal violist David Bratschemeister, “he can still dispatch a pretty good Tchaik 5 on a special occasion when he puts the work in. But his four pattern isn’t what it once was- his second beat is creeping up so it’s not on the same plane as his downbeat, and his cuing is not as precise as it once was. Last year, he gave a cue in The Planets and I couldn’t tell whether he was cueing the second or third clarinet.”
Opinions vary on how age affects the skills of conductors and what causes them to become nearly-washed-up. Professor Boyle D. Hamm at Southwestern Kansas State Community College said “elite conductors, like elite athletes, invariably lose muscle twitch as they get older. A conductor in his late 50’s like Maestro von Bohyarti will not have the same explosion in his upbeat that he will have had in his 20’s, and he’ll not be able to conduct as fast or as loud as he could earlier in his career.”
However, internationally recognized conducting coach and performance guru Rheinhold Zudick believes that age is not always the prime reason for a mid-career decline in skills, and that becoming nearly-washed-up is more likely the result “of a combination of factors to do with time management, repertoire fatigue and waning motivation. Maintaining a world class conducting technique takes constant practice—it’s like training for an Olympic event for your entire life. I would think that von Bohyarti, like many middle-aged athletes and musicians, struggles to find the will to continue to spend the necessary eight hours a day practicing his beat patterns in front of a mirror. But you remember what Fritz Reiner said- “less than eight hours a day in front of the mirror and I know something is wrong, less than seven hours a day in front of the mirror and the critics know something is wrong, and less that six hours a day in front of the mirror, and the public know something is wrong.” If you want to stay at the top, you’ve got to keep climbing.”
Concerns were raised as to whether von Bohyarti might be nearly-washed-up following a performance of La Mer with the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris Sud which critics slammed as being “very nearly flawless and enchanting, beautifully balanced and shaped, but just lacking that last tiny bit of effervescent sparkle.”
“Eet ees true, Chef Bohyarti did struugelle a beet in zi Debussy,” said OSPS general manager Pierre de l’Égout. “Being unable to deliver zee last tiny beet of effervescent sparkle is often a sign that a conducteur is becoming almost neerly-washed-oop.”
New York-based mega-agent Donald Wontford, who has represented Bohyarti since the glory days of his integral Havergal Brian cycle for Deutsche Grammophon in the 1970’s, firmly denied implications that his client’s conducting skills were eroding. “I reject absolutely the suggestion that Robert is approaching becoming almost nearly-washed-up as a conductor. Yes, it’s true he had some struggles with his four pattern recently, but all conductors do at some point. His three pattern remains one of the best in the industry, and I saw him do some cutoffs earlier this year that were as good as I’ve come across in 90 years running this company from my bomb-proof underground bunker.”
“This is not about being nearly-washed-up”, said Wontford, “it’s about a need for new challenges and personal growth, and it started with Robert’s aspiration to grow as an artist, not as a result of widespread critical concerns about his handling of tempo changes in Beethoven symphonies, or worries that his hair flips are not what they once were.”
Bohyarti said his dream of becoming a solo violinist was born almost by accident. “I came home late one night from a concert. I was tired and maybe had a few glasses of champagne at the reception, so I turned on the television to wind down. You never know what you’ll see on in the wee hours of the night. Anyway, there was this fascinating documentary about how the actor John Malkovich, who I really loved in that movie about the jewel thief, decided in mid career to become a puppeteer without any prior training. I thought that was just so inspiring, and so I called Donald the next morning and said I wanted to be a solo violinist, and next month I’m playing my first Bruch Concerto with the Dallas Philharmonic.”
Bohyarti dismissed concerns that his lack of violin training might limit his success as a violin soloist. “There are so many similarities- that’s why so many nearly-washed-up solo violinists become conductors. Any good violinist will tell you that all the sound comes from the right arm, which moves in a very similar way to a baton. It’s just that on the violin, it’s so much simpler- they only have to move the right arm back and forth from side to side. Just two directions, where a conductor has to master four: down, in, out and up! I’m finding it so liberating to simplify and focus on just two dimensions after so many years of being a four dimensional musician.”
“I’ve conducted an orchestra with one of the great violin sections in the world for over 20 years, and I’ve worked with every great violin soloist of the last two generations. I’ve watched them all very carefully to see which hand the bow goes in, what side of the face the violin goes on, everything. I think I know more about violin playing than a lot of these young kids out of Curtis and Juilliard! They may have the chops, but they haven’t lived with the repertoire- I’ve conducted the Brahms Violin Concerto dozens of times, and to do that, I had to learn about twenty different orchestral parts. The solo violinist only has to play one part!”
In spite of his confidence, von Bohyarti says he’s been treating his new career with all due seriousness of purpose. “I’ve always been an autodidact. I couldn’t see the point of going for a lesson with some loser violin professor at Eastman who makes less in a year than I make in a night. I’ve taught conducting all over the world, so I’m teaching myself violin the same way I would teach a young conductor to conduct. I’ve carefully marked up the solo part of the Bruch as I would prepare a Brahms symphony. Green highlighter for first finger notes, yellow for second, blue for third and red for fourth finger- to signal danger!”
“I’ve also been watching tons of YouTube videos. That’s the foundation on which great musicianship is built. You’ve got to study how the great violinists get the music across. I must have spent five hundred hours just watching Horst Herdenglocke videos. Of course, he sounds good, but he’s such a great communicator. I’ve conducted Horst many times, and to me, he’s the Carlos Kleiber of violinists. But I love all the modern players- they’re all so visually exciting to watch.
“It’s interesting to study how violin technique has improved so much since the invention of film and video. The older generation like Oistrakh, Milstein and Heifitz just sort of stood still and played. It’s so primitive. Today, almost every violinist I work with has the most incredible moves. I look at the way they swim their upper bodies, walk around, shake their heads and toss their hair and just think “that is the essence of great musicianship.””
With just over a month until his solo debut, von Bohyarti could hardly contain his enthusiasm: “I feel bad for young violinists, having to go out on the circuit with all these horrible regional orchestras. I’m not sure my ears could cope with working with orchestras like that– I’m used to working with the best. I’m so glad that my success as a conductor means I can start at the top with a really great orchestra like the Dallas Philharmonic. My Strad arrives on Tuesday, and that gives me well over two and a half weeks to translate everything I’ve worked on studying YouTube videos into a really great performance of the Bruch Violin Concerto. I really can’t wait.”
Critic Andrew Achenbach writes in the July 2016 issue of Gramophone Magazine.
“To my ears, Fraser’s richly upholstered orchestration works a treat yet also manages to be astutely appreciative of the simmering passion and sense of loss that permeate this wistful creation (the Adagio slow movement is especially affecting). Plaudits, too, for Woods’s characteristically lucid and fervent performance with his own English Symphony Orchestra, opulently captured by balance engineer Simon Fox-Gál.”
A new review in the July issue of Gramophone Magazine from Guy Rickards for Sarah Beth Briggs stunning new recording of piano concerti by Hans Gál and Mozart with the Royal Northern Sinfonia on AVIE Records
“If there is a happier twentieth-century piano concerto than Hans Gál’s of 1948, I don’t know what it is…Sarah Seth Briggs gives a wonderfully balanced reading of music that seems familiar—in its Classical poise and charm—and strange (much occurs beneath the surface, especially harmonically, that confirms its modernity). Kenneth Woods and the Royal Northern Sinfonia accompany superbly…With crystal clear sound, this is the most enjoyable concerto disc I have heard since Krenek’s Piano Concertos (4/16) and Pritchard’s Wall of Water (5/15). Hang on, didn’t Woods conduct those, too…?”
A review from critic Stephen Johnson in the July 2016 issue of BBC Music Magazine for the new Avie Records recording of Elgar’s Piano Quintet and Sea Pictures as orchestrated by Donald Fraser.
“The result is pretty remarkable. Fraser hasn’t just translated Elgar’s notes into rich and powerful orchestral terms, he as added (discreetly it must be said) the kinds of touches of colour and splashes of figuration Elgar himself might well have introduced. It really sounds like Elgar… beautifully realised, performed with warmth and understanding, and sympathetically recorded. Same too with the Sea Pictures”
The second violin section of the Brumington Symphony Orchestra are bracing for a vote on whether to leave or remain in their orchestra. The upcoming referendum has created anxiety throughout the orchestra amidst concerns that the second violins, who are the second largest section in the orchestra, are leaning towards a so-called Brexit (an exit from the Brumington Symphony).
Although the orchestra is one of only 12 salaried orchestras in the country and provides the second violins with a generous pension, paid sick days and funding for personal artistic development, some in the second violins feel that they have lost control over musical decision making. “It’s outrageous that we often don’t even control which direction our bows are going,” said Martin Geigeflegel, one of the organisers of the Leave campaign. “We’re constantly expected to match the first violins’ bowings, which are set by the leader, who is not a member of our section. Some bowings are even set by the conductor, who is not even a member of the orchestra. Voting Leave will restore our musical sovereignty- second violin bowings should obviously be decided by second violin players.”
It is clear that some of the discontent in the second violin section stems from frustrations with the dominance of the first violins, who are the largest section in the orchestra and get to play most of the memorable tunes. “When we came together with the woodwinds, the brass and the rest of the strings to form a musical union,” said Myrtle Shyftmysser, the long-time third assistant principal second violinist of the orchestra, “it was about creating a common marketplace for our musical talents. The first violins have become too dominant- they drive too much decision making and get too much audience attention. Frankly, I hate them all.”
Concerns have been raised as to whether a second violin Brexit would lead to the dissolution of the entire BSO, which has been riding high on a wave of critical adulation, sold out concerts, and one of the most lucrative recording contracts in the UK, one which is reported to generate dozens of pounds in income for the orchestra every year. The orchestra’s CEO Petri Jätehuolto said it would be a step into the unknown, “It is extremely unusual for an orchestra to perform without a second violin section. While they contribute very little to the music making of the orchestra overall and don’t seem to ever play a melody, they do take up quite a lot of space on stage, and I’m very concerned about whether audiences will think they’re getting value for money at our concerts when there is such a large open space on the stage. We’re currently looking at whether putting some small sculptures or possibly a water feature on stage would be a suitable alternative to a second violin section.”
Jätehuolto’s remarks brought Geigeflegel back to one of the major concerns of the Leave the Orchestra campaign- that too much decision-making power was in the hands of un-auditioned bureaucrats. “Jätehuolto and his team sit over there in the office building and decide who is going to conduct, what time rehearsal starts and what colour the posters are, and he’s never had to learn the first page of Don Juan.”
Leaders of the Leave campaign have expressed confidence that once they leave the BSO, the second violins will quickly be able to negotiate a new relationship with the orchestra’s audience for independent concerts. “We won’t be the first group outside the orchestra to perform in Market Hall [which is owned and operated by the BSO], said Shyftmysser, “the Tackacs Quartet and Lang Lang both did concerts last year which sold just as well as the orchestra, and we’re confident that once we’ve reclaimed our artistic independence, the market for our services will be better than ever. Personally, I think the BSO’s programming has become too highbrow, which is why I’ve suggested starting our new Second Violins Live series with a ViennaFest concert featuring all the best second violin parts by Johann Strauss Jr. I’m sure the audience will find it really exciting.”
Concerns have also been raised about the uncontrolled influx of new musicians onto the relatively small stage. “We regularly do concerts with choirs, who take up an enormous amount of room onstage and crowd the dressing room. Lines for the toilets at the intervals are too long, and it’s ridiculous that an amateur singer can come on our stage and sing Mahler and Verdi without even learning how to play off-beats or read alto clef.”
A look at the dynamics of the BSO as a whole reveals a sharp divide between sections seeking greater autonomy, such as the double basses, who many believe will follow the second violins lead and vote Brexit next season, and those demanding ever tighter union, such as the woodwinds.
The basses are reported to harbour deep resentment over having to play at the same time as the rest of the orchestra. “We’re constantly being told we’re late,” said bassist Don Murkee. “Well, who’s to say the rest of the orchestra isn’t early? If we leave the orchestra, I can play the bass when the bass is ready to be played.”
Meanwhile, principal oboist Nigel Bleistifthals says that a wider range of musical details need to be voted on by the entire orchestra. “We in the woodwinds feel that we should really have an equal say in the BSO’s bowings. After all, if the strings run out of bow, or play too loud, we’re the ones who have to bail them out. I’ve long thought Beethoven Five would sound better if the strings started down bow, and it’s crazy I can’t make them try it.”
While most of the orchestra’s artistic and administrative staff have been unified in pleading for the second violins to remain, the BSO’s apprentice conductor Alexander de Pfeffel has given his endorsement to the Leave campaign, although many suspect that in spite of his public calls for second violin autonomy, he intends to poach the entire BSO second violin section for his newly-formed rival orchestra, the Brumington Philharmonic, which is rumoured to be offering “an atmosphere of profound musician empowerment and self-realization in place of the gilded cage of a salary and benefits.”
“I have no plans to poach the BSO’s second violin section,” said de Pfeffel, “although I can hardly imagine a more stalwart group of violinists to build an orchestra around than these wonderful autonomous artists. If I was to form a Brumington Philharmonic, as has been rumoured, I would be honoured to make them the cornerstone of the new orchestra, even though none of them knows how to play above first position. They can always switch to viola in the BPO, which would make for a much stronger viola section than the BSO- everyone knows that most decent violists are actually violinists anyway.”
Meanwhile, members of the cello section expressed surprise at the pending vote. “Nope, I had no idea they were thinking of leaving,” said cellist Murray Nice
Nice’s stand partner, cellist Dwayne Comfort, overhearing Nice’s comments said “wait, you mean this orchestra has two violin sections? Wow- that’s cool. I had no idea- I just thought some of them kind of laid out or faked it when the parts got too hard.”
Government officials are considering a move to permanently do away with alto clef from 2018, sources have revealed.
It has been known for some time that the widely reviled clef, recently voted “worst clef” for a record-shattering 27th year in a row, has long been considered by many in the cabinet as “unfit for purpose.” A recent government white paper on clefs and transpositions cited many shortcomings with alto clef, including insufficient distinctiveness from other so-called “c clefs,” notably the far more popular tenor clef.
Minister for Transposition, Jacob Wayst-Moog, said of the underperforming clef: “For many years now, the government have been aware that alto clef is saddled with a number of intrinsic shortcomings. Almost nobody can actually read it- even violists, who use it everyday, are often as confused about what pitch they are playing as are those listening to them. Most decent violists are actually violinists anyway, and they’d be far better off under the government’s new plan for viola parts to be written in treble clef transposed in F.”
Alto clef has long raised the ire of leading music critics as well as musicians. “The real problem with alto clef,” said one leading London critic, “is that it’s only useable for a register that nobody particularly wants to hear,” while another noted that “it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for alto clef- all it seems to be good for is the wooly region of the viola and missed notes on the trombone. Where tenor clef tends to create a sense of expectation of the bright heldentenor colorings of the cello and stentorian trombone chorals, alto clef is really only used for fuzzy inner voices and passages requiring the use of a toy trombone.”
Some in government expect the “alto trombone” (bottom) to be renamed as the “toy trombone” once alto clef is scrapped in 2018. Photo credit- Edward Solomon
It is understood that a final announcement on the future of the troubled clef has been postponed due to a lack of consensus among ministers as to what to replace it with. While some have advocated for an expansion of the role of tenor clef, others have called for the widespread introduction of transposition among violists, a plan recently derided by the Leader of the Opposition as “the worst musical idea since techno-dodecaphony.”
Side effects of exposure to alto clef include writing bizarre sentences backwards. Photo credit North Muskegon Elementary Strings
Government ministers were quick to discount rumors that the move to replace alto clef was intended to save conductors from public embarrassment. “Let’s face it, if we did away with all musical notation that conductors struggle with, it wouldn’t mean just doing away with alto clef, bass clarinet in A and Glockenspiel, we’d have to rely on conducting Mahler symphonies using guitar tablature,” said one source.
Meanwhile Mervyn Purvue of the British Society for the Preservation of Historic Clefs called for caution: “Alto clef may have its obvious shortcomings, but sometimes it’s important to protect the appropriate place of aspects of our heritage, however grotesque and disgusting we may find them. Like Morris dancing, the music of Percy Grainger and TV talent shows, alto clef reminds us that life often has a dark and distasteful side. Just as we must face up to the brutal atrocities committed over the centuries in the name of the British Empire, we must accept that alto clef, awful as it is, is a part of our musical history we can’t just sweep under the carpet.”
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