Category Archives: Technical

Albert Herring

Firstly, delighted with myself: I completed the Crosaire crossword in The Irish Times today, most of it in less than an hour as I ate my dinner. One of the very last ones I got was rather nice.

Most uninhibited sort are confused by thief dropping farthing on road (9)

If we ‘confuse’ the letters of the word ‘are’ we get EAR…if we ‘drop’ the abbreviation of farthing (F) from thief we get THIE…and road=street=ST. All that gives us our answer: EARTHIEST (“most uninhibited sort”).

I’ve started working with a young singer/songwriter called Laura Elizabeth. I’ll be doing some playing on recordings she’s planning to make in the next while. Definitely one to watch — I’ll keep you posted. Check out her videos on YouTube.

This evening I went to the Royal Irish Academy of Music’s production of Albert Herring, an opera by Benjamin Britten. It was brilliant. The staging, for a start, was really economically managed, but pleasantly fulsome to set the scene in the happily bustling rural English town. The grocer’s boxes are full, the tables for the May Fair groan with delectable treats. Scenes were changed fluidly, only once requiring crew to come onto the stage. Costumes were a treat — Margaret Bridge as the imperious Lady Billows was gloriously bedecked in sartorial finery (to match her superb singing). Her sidekick, Florence Pike, sported an ominous eyepatch and self-important tweed skirt and jacket. The school mistress, the mayor, the young buck Sid, his sweetheart Nancy, the three kids, Albert, and his mother; all these characters were dressed in the colourful and elegantly practical clothing of an idealised inter-war England. The local policeman and vicar (played outstandingly by Padraic Rowan) wear the uniforms of their stations.

It’s a fairly evenly-distributed score, with everyone getting their chance to shine. Particularly impressive are the ‘crowd’ scenes and one ensemble that comes to mind is the one in the grocer’s in the second act. Mrs Herring and Nancy are joined by the octave-apart unison of the vicar and the school mistress (who, in the tradition of Oscar Wilde’s Dr Chasuble and Miss Prism, seem to have un petit frisson between them) — those pillars of society enveloping the fretting mother and guilt-ridden friend with stoic music. One part that feels underwritten is the mayor, a tenor role that doesn’t seem to add much to the drama. When given the podium at the May Fair to honour the newly-crowned Albert, he goes off on a self-aggrandising tangent about his council’s past achievements. Perhaps a bit of social commentary is being made…?

Britten’s music is wonderful. I’m not familiar with most of his operas, but those I have seen have convinced me that his reputation as a master of the genre is thoroughly deserved. This one, in particular, seems to be a great choice for a university level cast of the calibre of the RIAM singers. The music is supremely challenging for vocalists and orchestra, but marvellously engaging for an audience. What a delight to have such operas in English! I’m looking forward to the next one already.

A old friend of mine, Conor Mitchell, is one composer who is doing brilliant work. I went to see his opera ‘The Musician’, based on the story of the pied piper, in Belfast a few years ago and was blown away by how good it was. He just completed a set of Cabaret Songs to texts by WH Auden and Mark Ravenhill, which will be performed at Britten’s centenary celebrations in Aldeburgh later this year.

Crosaire No 14,970 (and Tim Garland)

Completed most of this one quite quickly last night and finished it this morning. But for two clues:

16d Rank fellow with you close to messy room (= FUSTY)

I actually had _UST_, and my mother impressed upon me at a young age the usage of ‘sty’ to mean a messy room. ‘You’ equating to U is a commonplace device, but I just didn’t cop ‘fellow’ as being F. As in FRA (Fellow of the Royal Academy). I got sidetracked with thinking that ‘rank fellow’ referred to a person of rank. ‘Rank’ here is, of course, the definition.

The other I missed was 24 down:

Come in for the end of the traffic light (= UNDERGO)

I got that ‘GO’ is the traffic light, and (with the benefit of the answer in front of me) that something one ‘comes in for’ – like criticism – is something that you ‘undergo’, but I don’t immediately get how ‘under’ is used for ‘the end of’.

Anyway, quite chuffed to get all the rest. Excited to get cracking on the Christmas Crosaire over the holiday.

Happy Christmas 🙂

PS Listening to an album called ‘Rising Tide’ by saxophonist Tim Garland recorded in New York in 2002. We saw him in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London a few years ago with a band that included the two amazing players who play with Garland on this, Geoffrey Keezer on piano and Joe Locke on vibes & marimba. There are a couple of pieces, the long-form work ‘Sonata’ and the (regular size!) ‘Fantasy’ that feature a string quartet. ‘Sonata’ was, according to the liner notes, written for author Paulo Coelho. All beautifully inventive and with the ‘tonality dial’ at just the level I like! Some of the vibraphone runs are just breathtaking – check it out 🙂

The Dark Knight Rises

Such an enjoyable film! These are just some scattered thoughts.

This most recent take on the Batman story by director Christopher Nolan has been characterised by its brilliant baddies. A deep-seated desire for revenge fuels every one of the characters who rise above the throng of Gotham to engage in the struggle for its soul, and deception is very much the weapon of choice.

Despite having seen promo shots of Anne Hathaway in a catsuit, I was still delightfully surprised at her deft handling of the mask of Catwoman’s character. Gone is the weirdness and slight supernatural flavour given to the character Michelle Pfeiffer so memorably embodied. Here is a truly suitable partner for Bruce Wayne.

Perhaps it’s just my overactive crossword cortex, but I wondered at the link between her name, Selina Kyle, and the apt adjective ‘slinky’!

Bane was amazing. A true monster, right down to his buried heart. The tenderness with which his mask is repaired by the object of his affection was beautiful.

A few musical things stood out. The music that plays at Miranda Tate’s charity benefit (to which Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle dance) is Ravel’s gorgeous ‘Pavane pour une infante défunte’, which translates as ‘Funeral music for a dead princess’. Later in the film, we learn just how much the death of a princess has brought about Gotham’s apocalypse.
There is a great moment, as Bruce Wayne fails in his second attempt to escape his prison, when the tensely pulsing strings suddenly chug to an embarrassed slower tempo. An extremely satisfying musical joke, pitched perfectly, as was all the humour in the film. (Sweeping generalisation, perhaps…your thoughts?)

Lovely reappearance by Cillian Murphy, who gets a great line as he pronounces sentence on an unfortunate victim. The hint of scarecrow in his costume was bang on.

One last thing I noticed was how the timescale of this trilogy is believable. There aren’t endless villains, nor is there endless time. A man – for that is what Batman is, after all – has but a short time to live. As remarkable as Bruce Wayne’s physical transformation is during the course of the film, he is not superhuman. There is a limit to personal vendetta. But, as this Olympic year has shown us, there is always a fresh generation of achievement, a fresh hunger to carry the ancient fire of the gods.

Oh WOW! (James Rhodes)

Excerpt of Étincelles Op. 36 No. 6 by Moritz M...
Excerpt of Étincelles Op. 36 No. 6 by Moritz Moszkowski (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love how we can now finally *see* how incredible performers play. Video can get right up close and record jaw-dropping things like James Rhodes playing Moszkowski’s luminescent ‘Etincelles’. (I like Mr Rhodes because he sent me a signed copy of his debut CD a few years ago when I correctly identified a piece of music he tweeted a picture of!)

 

First solo gig in a long time (and a bit about playing Bach on piano)

Emma O’Reilly asked me to play at a songwriter evening she curated the other night in The Mercantile bar. It’s a long while since I played my own stuff, so I jumped at the chance. I took out the guitar earlier that day at home to practice and ended up writing a new song — something I haven’t done in a long, long while!

I’ve been meeting up with a friend of mine, Peter Ryan, to hang out and talk about writing and give each other encouragement with stuff we’re working on. My lack of any new material prompted me to go back over the voice memo recordings of song ideas that I’ve made on my phone. It was two of these that I worked up into the song, which I’ve called ‘Panic’. I *do* have a demo recording of just me and the guitar, but I won’t post it up yet. I didn’t do a brilliant job of playing it the other night at the gig, so I feel like it needs to stay on the drawing board for a bit longer. I’m hoping to maybe work it up into a bigger arrangement, so you can hear it then…!

Buoyed by the experience of playing Emma’s gig, I got in touch with Lisa McLaughlin and got a slot on a forthcoming ‘Saucy Sundays’ gig (the regular showcase that she hosts in The Grand Social). Sunday 13 May — I’ll be on first 🙂

Another date of note (for my diary, anyway) is Friday the 18th of May. I just got word yesterday that that’s when my Grade 8 piano exam is scheduled for. Eek! The pieces are coming along nicely and I’m chipping away at the scales day by day — there are so many! I just read Charles Rosen’s book ‘Piano Notes’, which had some really interesting thoughts about playing Bach. One of the pieces I’m playing for the exam is Bach’s Fugue in B flat from the first book of ‘The Well-Tempered Keyboard’. He wrote a Prelude and a Fugue in each of the twelve major keys…and also each of the twelve minor keys…and then he did that all again. The interesting thing that Rosen points out is that these were never meant to be performed in public (and certainly not on a modern piano, more likely on a harpsichord or a clavichord). Bach would’ve used them as teaching material and so the modern practice of accentuating each appearance of the main theme of the fugue (the ‘subject’) is not how he would’ve expected the pieces to be played. For a start, the keyboard instruments of his day couldn’t do gradations of dynamics in the subtle way a piano can (a piano-forte, to give it its full name, is so called because of its ability to do both soft and loud). Secondly, since it wasn’t for an audience, the people hearing the fugue would’ve been the player or a pupil following the score — both of whom would have no need to have the appearances of the subject spelled out to them, since it was in front of them. Thirdly, the subject is the least interesting bit of the piece if you’re Bach. It’s just the bones to which the artistic flesh of the composer’s counterpoint is attached. All that having been said, if the pieces *are* to be performed for an audience who neither know the score nor have the aesthetic sensibilities of an eighteenth century harpsichord pupil, the pianist would do well to bring alive the music (to ‘publish’ it, as Rosen puts it), and some underlining of the structure of these remarkable pieces is the way to go.

All great food for thought. I’d recommend the book to anyone who plays piano or has an interest in classical piano music — it’s an easy read, with loads of anecdotes and insight into the repertoire and life of a pianist.

Piano practice

Practice continues for the Grade 8 exam. The three pieces I have to perform are coming along: Bach’s Fugue in Bb from the first book of ‘The 48’, Schubert’s Scherzo in Bb, and Shostakovich’s Prelude in D (from the Op. 34 set). Today I got a good bit of work done on all three.

This morning I listened to Murray Perahia’s 2000 recording of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, a piece I fell in love with when I was at university. The beautiful Aria that bookends the variations was featured in the film ‘The English Patient’ and my flatmate George had the soundtrack on CD. It also has a lovely version of ‘Cheek to Cheek’, as I recall… I encountered the piece again while staying on the Scottish island of Arran in my second year at university. A few of us went and stayed in a cottage there — I remember it raining a lot. We were armed with a box set of Bruckner symphonies, but it was a brief snippet in a TV documentary of Glenn Gould playing the fifth Goldberg variation that made the greater impression. It’s really a stunning performance (he recorded them twice, in 1955 and in 1981 — take your pick!) and a real piece of virtuosity. I memorised the first few bars of the right hand part when we got back to Edinburgh as a small act of worship…someday I’ll learn the whole movement!

I have a notion that Shostakovich gives that variation a nod in the Prelude I’m learning. It starts very similarly (although it quickly spirals off into Shostakovich’s sound world): the right hand has a stream of semiquavers which the left hand punctuates sparsely. Both pieces are number five in the set to which they belong…I don’t know…just a thought!

(Jeepers! I just searched for videos of the Shostakovich piece on YouTube and it’s mostly kids playing it at light speed…gulp…

Okay, okay, here’s one…

So, I’ll keep practicing!)

Notes tremendous thundered out

Today is St Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music. It’s also the day Benjamin Britten was born. One of his compositions, the ‘Ode To Saint Cecilia’ (from whence comes the title of this blog post), is a setting for unaccompanied choir of a poem that his friend WH Auden dedicated to him. We sang it in New Dublin Voices a couple of years ago and it is included on our CD, ‘Something Beginning With B’.

(The album is available to buy from the website, newdublinvoices.com, or on iTunes…)

Tonight I’m going to attend the rehearsal of the Goethe-Institut Choir. Hopefully they’ll let me sing with them in their forthcoming concert on 5 December in The National Concert Hall. They’ll be singing Bach’s setting of the Magnificat, which I fell in love with as a student in university. In the first term we (the fifty or so students in the first and second years of the BMus course) did the piece in a scratch performance just for ourselves. Our tutors told us about the various little compositional signals that Bach uses in his setting of the words of Mary’s song, and I’ll blog more about it another time. Right now I have to go and get ready. Have to make a good impression if I’m to convince them I’m up to the task!

Oh yes, and I found this charming video by the Anderson & Roe piano duo (whom I’ve written about before on this blog). Vivaldi was a near contemporary of Bach and would have probably *loved* to play a grand piano, had it been invented. Anderson & Roe achieve a delicate sound, more akin to the Baroque keyboard instrument sound, by dampening the strings of Ms Roe’s piano. Mr Anderson’s uneffected (but wonderfully affected) playing allows the piano to sing the melody as only a grand piano can. A beautiful effect from a continually interesting musical partnership.

Grace and poise

This weekend, New Dublin Voices took part in a production of ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ at the National Concert Hall. It was a full week of rehearsals starting with the conductor, John Wilson, putting us through our paces on Monday evening before we went along to the full orchestral rehearsals during the week. It was a wonderful experience—I really enjoyed sitting beside the bass clarinet player, having done a lot of orchestral clarinet playing in university. Being inside the orchestra was great. John Wilson reconstructed the score, the original having been tragically consigned to landfill many years ago. (In an article I read in Classic FM magazine with John, he also sadly notes that a lot of the music libraries of the big studios were destroyed. There was nothing for it but to literally write it all out again. It must’ve been a mammoth task!) The RTÉ Concert Orchestra were augmented with a rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, drums) and, behind us on stage, a full saxophone section. They had some really lovely moments in the score, providing that close-harmony sound that only saxes can do. Seriously, it was a real treat sitting in the middle of it all and watching the realisation of this sublime music.

Here’s the sequence from the film for ‘Moses Supposes’, which the amazing dancers did pretty much step-for-step at the NCH:

A couple of my friends posted links to this video, too. Jaw-droppingly good. Danny Macaskill is to a trail bike what Gene Kelly is to tap shoes.