Category Archives: My favourite things

RTE Concert Orchestra (NCH, 25 March 2015): Ravel’s piano concerto in G

RTÉ Concert Orchestra: Essential Classics

John Wilson conductor
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet piano
RTÉ Contempo Quartet

Eric Coates Dancing Nights
Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major
Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Gershwin An American in Paris

“What links all these pieces?” began conductor John Wilson, biding time as the stage was reset after the Vaughan Williams piece.

“Maurice Ravel.”

With a raconteur’s fluency, leaning casually on the podium, Wilson then gave a fascinating programme note. (I had been, shall we say, just in time for the concert, and so hadn’t availed of a printed programme.) Ravel was teacher to Vaughan Williams for an intense period that marked a transformation in his style; Gershwin adored the composer but Ravel famously recognised that the world would benefit more from a first-rate Gershwin than a second-rate Ravel; Coates was one of the few composers that Ravel sought out, on account of his command of the modern instruments (e.g. vibraphone, saxophone).

Coates’s ‘Dancing Nights’ was the only piece that I hadn’t heard before, but its stylish gaiety — with such glorious melodies and harmony! — was immediately familiar and just thoroughly enjoyable. It’s the music from this period that John Wilson has championed in his career and it is one of the very best things to do in Dublin to hear him conduct the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

Onto Ravel. I fell in love with this piece of music when i first encountered it at university. (The conductor of the Edinburgh University Chamber Orchestra at the time, Richard Jeffcoat, conducted it from the piano. I was on clarinet.) It may say ‘piano concerto’ on the cover, but it’s an incredible piece of work that treats the orchestra more as a chamber ensemble. The writing for each and every instrument demands extraordinary technique. Perhaps this is why it’s so exciting to hear: it’s just so interesting! Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, the piano soloist, was such fun to watch — his remarkable abilities allowing the jazzy energy of the music to shine. There’s a thundering piano run in octaves in the first movement that he played rather differently than I’ve heard on recordings and that was the moment for me when I knew something really special was happening.

The second movement is one of the most perfect things ever committed to paper. It is simply one of the best things in my life; one of those things that I can’t even really recommend to you because, to me, it’s so completely mine.

(If you look very closely you can see me sitting in the balcony, directly above the harp!)

Here’s a gem of a book (click the cover below for Kindle version) by the brilliant fiction writer Jean Echenoz that I read, and loved, a few years ago. Echenoz uses the facts of Ravel’s last ten years to create a wonderful, charming work:

Bad Ambassador

This is one of my favourite Neil Hannon songs, from the ‘Regeneration’ album. I hadn’t seen the video until this morning, when I got to it in rather a roundabout way. I was watching Portlandia, season 2, the episode where Kirsten Wiig plays the groupie/stalker/kidnapper. Amber Tamblyn does a turn as an intern in the feminist bookstore, too. And there’s another guest, Miranda July, who plays someone who’s had a bunch of jobs but, happily (and to a musical number) “she’s making jewellery now”.

Miranda July is a Portland-based artist, married to artist Mike Mills who directed the ‘Bad Ambassador’ video. There’s a connection, too, via the roller-skating theme, to the video Emma J Doyle and Cory Philpott shot in San Francisco for James Vincent McMorrow’s song, ‘Gold’…

…which we’ll be performing a special version of at Electric Picnic this weekend!

My favourite things, currently; also, a cool thing about Kimbra’s new album

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Portlandia (been binge-watching it on Netflix since coming home from Canada)

Running (I hurt my calves trying to run like an elite athlete. Jenny explained, with the aid of a lady from the internet, how to do good stretches. Now I have a book about running.)

Hendrick’s gin (which I completely ran out of last night)

Kimbra’s forthcoming album, ‘The Golden Echo’ (is that Prince on ‘Everlovin’ Ya’?? addendum: nope, it’s Bilal… Is that Little Dragon on ‘Love In High Places’???)*

* Tom Moon, the reviewer on the NPR site, muses on the album’s title; of how “there’s a trace of magic in an echo. It’s like Narcissus’ reflection, only better”. I was racking my brain trying to place the piano and orchestra melody that appears a couple of times in between tracks — was it Tchaikovsky? Then it dawned on me: Rachmaninoff’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’, variation 18.

This is an inspired choice. The melody comes late in Rachmaninoff’s work, a beautiful tune after a lot of virtuosic fireworks based on the famous Paganini Caprice for violin (you know it…). This new tune doesn’t seem to bear any relation to Paganini’s, though. And here’s the thing — it’s a literal “reflection, only better”. In music it’s called an inversion:

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Rachmaninoff taking stuff he loved from the music of the past and refashioning it. Tip of the cap to you, Kimbra 😉