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End of the year summary

I thought it may be interesting to list a few of my personal highlights from 2016 to which I can look back in however many years. 

The most obvious starting point happened on 2 January 2016 when I proposed to Susanna. We married in August ūüôā

In early January I presented my first paper at the RMA Research Students’ Conference in Bangor. It seemed to go down well. Whilst there I received news that I have been offered a PhD place at Sheffield. As academia had been a struggle at the beginning of my masters (balancing too many things), this felt like a positive start. 

In April I conducted my first ever Mozart symphony (Linz) and my second Requiem with Opera dei Lumi. To date, this is the last time I conducted. This marks a big absence in my life which I intend to revive in 2017. 

Around this time I was informed I was unsuccessful in my application for PhD funding. It’s tricky to source funding these days. But I’ll find a way!

In June I took the first holiday I’ve had in a few years and cycled from Glasgow to the Outer Hebrides. It was absolutely stunning. 

As I’ve already said, in August I married Susanna! By far the happiest occasion of my life. We took our honeymoon in Aviemore where I climbed my first munro (Sg√≤r Gaoith), swam in beautiful lochs and just had an incredible time. 

In September I applied to a few jobs. One of which I got; my first full-time permanent job. This started in November. I fear it will take me a significantly long time to adapt to full-time work, having juggled so much for so long.

As of today (31 December 2016) my permanent address is still in Glasgow. But within a few weeks it will be Newcastle. I’m truly saddened to be leaving Scotland, which is my home and heart is.

2017 will be good. New city, new life patterns. The two things I am most determined to do:

  • More projects with Opera dei Lumi 
  • Commence my PhD 
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Making the most of my last month in Glasgow

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Approaching the end of my MMus, and with a move away from Glasgow (to Newcastle) forecast for January, I’ve been keeping my eyes out for jobs. I applied to two on the last day of September, and was offered one (the one I wanted) on the 13 October. This is a huge change in lifestyle, which I may write more on at another point. But more specifically, my remaining time in Glasgow has been cut short and I am due to start my new job in the North East on 14 November.

Without realising it, I’ve made the most of my very last full month in Glasgow by attending concerts from our national music companies. It certainly frames my time in Glasgow well (when I was new here I attended everything I could), but it really reminded me just how lucky we are with our musical culture in Scotland.

On 2 October I attended the BBC SSO with their new Chief Conductor, Thomas Dausgaard, at City Halls for an extraordinary and rare concert: Beethoven’s 1808 Academy Concert. This was a five hour extravaganza featuring Symphony No. 6, Op. 68; Ah! Perfido, Op. 65 (a concert aria); the Gloria from the Mass in C, Op. 86; Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58; Symphony No. 5, Op. 67; Sanctus and Benedictus from the Mass; Fantasia in G minor for solo piano, Op. 77; Chorale Fantasy, Op. 80.

On 7 October, I saw Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Robin Ticciati play Mozart’s last three symphonies (Nos 39-41: E-flat major, K.543; G minor, K.550; C major, K.551 ‘Jupiter’) all in the one go.

Then on 18 October, I went to see Scottish Opera’s re-staging of their 2010 production of Le nozze di Figaro directed by Thomas Allen. It was my first visit to the Theatre Royal on Hope Street since its overhaul, and I was particularly impressed.

Finally, on the 21st I heard the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (this one at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, though they performed the same programme the following night in Glasgow!). They were performing Mahler’s Blumine and What the Wild Flowers Tell Me from Symphony No. 3 (arranged by Britten), Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with Janine Jansen, and Beethoven’s Seventh.

I don’t really feel able to go into a full review of them all. However, each evening was just pure magic. A personal highlight was Scottish Opera’s Figaro. This particular company have had such a varied track record recently, but this was first rate Mozart. A work I know so well, having seen it numerous times, conducted it, written a MMus thesis on it. I was so inspired by the endurance of the story and the way it was told. Thomas Allen’s directing was spot on, with plenty of comedy, but also leaving one or two plot strings open for the observer to ponder in their own time. The cast were great, and the orchestra were truly brilliant under Tobias Ringborg. One can easily expect another production of Figaro to just come and go – but I was truly surprised and impressed with this one.

Another highlight was SCO’s Mozart evening. Ticciati has long been established as a great Mozartian conductor. His decision to have natural brass, baroque timpani and gut strings (with modern winds?!) was inspired. Every nuance was spot on. It was breathtakingly wonderful.

The RSNO have never been a regular thing for me. But this was also special because I got to hear my younger brother, and attend the concert with my Mum, brother and nephew. 

Glasgow – I’ll miss you. 

Review: Fox Opera // Mozart // Bizet

Yesterday evening Fox Opera made their inaugural performance, providing a rare opportunity both to attend a concert in the beautiful surroundings of the Mackintosh Church, Glasgow, and to see a double-bill of Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor K.486 and Le docteur Miracle by Bizet.

Set-up by conductor Olivia Clarke, Fox Opera is a new opera company whose ambition is to provide a professional platform to young singers and instrumentalists while making opera more accessible to audiences in Glasgow. Last night’s performance set the company off on the right foot in this regard; presenting two very good casts while opting for the vernacular. The Mozart was presented in a modernised English libretto in the dialogue while maintaining the original German in the arias and ensembles. This was a highly convincing and successful decision in my view. Doctor Miracle was in English throughout.

Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) was written for a musical competition in 1786 in which German singspiel was pitted against Italian opera (represented by Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole). It is a highly amusing musical commentary about the ego and vanity of singers. Madame Herz and Madame Silberklang were sung by Ana Pousa and Caroline Kennedy respectively, both brilliantly conveying their vocal agility while relishing in the musical mockery of the other. Tenor Nicolas Maraziotis as Frank (the impresario himself) attempts to bring order to the situation. In the meantime, Buff (the appropriately named buffo baritone role played by Alan Rowland) lowers the tone with suggestive jokes, before eventually convincing the two prima donne to work together. This 25 minute work certainly favours the two soprano roles (that is the point of the story, after all) – Buff does not sing until the finale – but the wit of the plot was evident in the dynamic of the cast throughout.

Bizet wrote Doctor Miracle in 1857 at the age of just 18. This short operetta combines themes and devices which one cannot help but enjoy, in particular the well-seasoned but never-too-old cocktail of mistaken identity, deception and love are all wrapped up into a snapshot of comedy. Laurette, the mayor’s daughter, is in love with Silvio, a captain who the mayor disapproves of. Silvio takes on disguises in order to continue seeing Laurette, first as a doctor who the major chases away, then as Pasquin, a servant hired by the mayor. Upon the discovery of his identity Silvio is banished, then claims to have poisoned the mayor. Who should the mayor call upon, but the doctor he had chased off earlier, who agrees to cure the poison on condition that he marry Laurette. Once permission is granted, he reveals himself once again as Silvio.

Tenor Connor Smith brought much to the multiple characters of Silvio. One moment a white-coated, bearded doctor speaking a range of languages, the next a simple servant speaking in broad Glaswegian. This was juxtaposed with the upper class mayor, played by baritone Will Frost. Frost and Smith bounced their performances off each other brilliantly. The two female roles do not contribute so much to the humour of the plot, but bring their own quirks to the fore. Veronique, the mayor’s wife and Laurette’s mother, was particularly funny as played by Svetlina Stoyanova, regularly referring to her own ‘youthful’ beauty and stories of previous husbands. Klaudia Korzeniewska’s performance of Laurette was brilliant too, particularly in her aria of love for Silvio, in which she demonstrated great lyricism.

The ‘constant’ throughout both the Mozart and the Bizet was that of the staging by director Paola Cuffolo and the musical direction of Olivia Clarke. In each opera, Cuffolo’s direction was simple but highly effective: the stories were brilliantly told. This was aided by subtle lighting and basic props. Navigating her way through the scores, Clark directed a strong orchestral accompaniment, with a particular knack for drawing out lush sonorities and well judged shapes in the Bizet.

All in all, this was a fantastic evening. It runs for another two performances (5 August, 7.30pm and 6 August at 2.30pm at the Mackintosh Church). If you’re into comic plays, unusual opera, live music making, and supporting a new venture – this is not to be missed!

Reactions to Philip Clark’s Guardian article of 20/07/2016

Where have the great composers gone?

When I started writing this little blog post, Philip Clark’s article had been live a little over 24 hours. I felt compelled to ‘respond’ with some thoughts of my own. Unable to publish yesterday, there has since been a response in the Guardian by Susanna Eastburn. Her article addresses similar things to what will follow here, but I feel still misses a few important points.

Just the opening tone of Clark’s article smacks of hindsight rather than foresight. Even the wording of the title puts his sights firmly in the past; he could as easily called it ‘Where are the great composers?’ But as it is, Clark is asserting the belief that there are none left, which he goes on to articulate throughout the article.

On a superficial level, it strikes me as odd that someone so concerned with looking for the next ‘great composer’ (I’ll return to this shortly) readily admits that his last visit to the HCMF was over ten years ago. Of course, it is not a forgone conclusion that one will find ‘great (living) composers’ at Huddersfield. But no other British festival specialises in the presenting of new and recent music so unreservedly (perhaps the Aldeburgh Festival comes close).

So what of Clark’s elusive ‘great’ composer? He talks about the ‘profile’ of a ‘great’ composer as if it’s a check-list of prerequisites which in turn demonstrates and confers the status of greatness automatically. This immediately spins us into the idea that a ‘great’ composer fulfills certain expectations. Wherein reality, the composer’s to which we attribute ‘greatness’ tend to transcend their field. Expectations go out the window; it’s the thrill of being surprised which appeals.

Clark’s lack of a proper definition of what a ‘great’ composer is highlights the elephant in the room: Is it really how we think of composers now? George Benjamin discussing Gawain on Newsnight is the sort of thing that would not happen today. Some would say we live in a culturally pluralist environment, which is surely a good thing? But if indeed we do, works like Gawain, The Minotaur, or indeed any other composer’s, are not going to be met with such outcry now as a decade ago. Or perhaps our culture is de-sensitised, and now more than ever we have the ability to turn whatever we want on or off like a tap.

Another aspect which I believe needs to be highlighted is the fact that we are very drawn to ‘great’ performers. A composer can continue being great after their death, whereas until the last century, a performer could not. Now we have a wealth of recordings to allow a performer’s legacy to last beyond their lifetime.

One issue which troubles me is the implication in Clark’s article that a composer’s greatness can only be achieved in their lifetime. We know this is not the case! Two twentieth-century examples that come to mind: Claude Vivier and Jean Barraqu√©. The former’s music has seen increasing popularity in recent years. In my opinion, Barraqu√©’s music is on a par (if not perhaps even more compelling?) with the likes of his contemporary and compatriot Pierre Boulez, but even today Barraqu√© remains an obscure name – even among modern music enthusiasts. Being a great composer certainly does not rest on whether you are recognised at an ATM in Huddersfield…

Since Clark’s and Eastburn’s articles both refer to Thomas Ad√®s and¬†The Tempest, it seems fair to mention this briefly. If success (and/or controversy) are the measure of ‘greatness’ in opera, then it’s worth reminding people that Mozart wrote some 22 operatic works. Today we refer to the ‘great seven’. Of those seven, La clemenza di Tito is often viewed as a lesser work than, say¬†Le nozze di Figaro. But my point here is that¬†Ad√®s has written a single chamber opera, and a single full-scale opera. Perhaps if he had the opportunity to write 22 operas, he too would have seven (or more) operas that are unanimously considered ‘great’? Beethoven wrote one opera, and although it is popular, it is certainly not the work which established him as a ‘great’ composer. And of course, Bach wrote none! So, even through the lens of twentieth-century Britain (with Britten and Birtwistle), opera is clearly no better a way to ascertain ‘greatness’ in Western art music than anything else.

Before concluding, I also feel it’s worth pointing out that – here in Britain – we’ve only really had three stand-out ‘great’ composers: Purcell, Elgar and Britten. This spans centuries. So, perhaps a bit of patience is required before we can give way to Clark’s pessimism.

Eastburn welcomes the shift away from the notion of ‘greatness’ as a way of accessing wider perspectives and allowing art to impact a wider people. This is of course a good thing in many ways. Though, I struggle to see things so black and white as Clark and Eastburn. Clark maintains that there are no ‘great’ composers left, Eastburn almost suggests that we shouldn’t have ‘great’ composers anymore. I feel squarely in the middle: I think there is definitely cause to be optimistic and, even more so, to allow the concept of a ‘great composer’ (whatever that may be – a definition I certainly won’t try to establish) to continue.

As a parting thought, it is an understatement to say we have been so fortunate with the musical diversity and depth brought about in the twentieth-century. We may not witness such a range and rate of musical advancement for another century. (Who knows!?) But the ghosts of Stockhausen, Ligeti, Boulez and others will only linger at places like Huddersfield for as long as we allow them to. We must continue celebrating their music, but we must also look forward.

If this topic isn’t subjective enough, I would like to close with a few opinions: Hans Abrahamsen is a truly remarkable composer. Ad√®s can be too, when he applies himself. Haas is also remarkable. We are lucky to have their music.¬†

 

Online Resources #1: Ligeti, Boulez, Stravinsky and Benjamin

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Anybody with a moderate interest in modern musicology will have noticed that the practice of performance as a form of musicological research has become more valued than ever. Having unshackled ‘musicology’ and ‘analysis’ from the former authoritarian mindset of theory exerting hegemony over performance (1), twenty-first-century advances have enabled the emergence of numerous online resources, useful both for performers and analysts.

Explore the Score is a reasonably new online treasure trove for anybody interested in the music of the Pierre Boulez, Gy√∂rgy Ligeti, George Benjamin or Igor Stravinsky. Its scope is wide: ranging from introducing this music to children through education projects, to a more general ‘reference’ tool for the aspiring performer.

I anticipate that the Ligeti piano works section will eventually include all 18 Etudes¬†(1985-2001) and 11 pieces of Musica ricercata (1953).¬†It currently consists of three of each collection, between which there is plenty of information and advice to satisfy most people’s interests! The incredible Pierre-Laurent Aimard opens up with a desire to communicate everything he learned from Ligeti through their years of collaboration. Complimenting this is an ‘Inside the Score’ section which is interactive. One can follow the score, watch Aimard perform, or click to view extracts of Aimard giving masterclasses at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2014.

Boulez’s Douze Notations feature too (currently Nos 1, 2, 4, 5, 7), each receiving an introduction by the late composer himself in addition to comments and performances by Tamara Stefanovich.

Websites like these are few and far between and clearly represent years of planning as well as a significant amount of financial input. Could this mark the beginning of a new form of musical education? I for one find it refreshing that this music has been brought to educate primary school children. Advanced and professional musicians can benefit too. One can read detailed accompanying essays by leading analysts, or just watch the videos and listen to the music.

We are fortunate to live in an age where such resources are free and (pretty much) immediately accessible. More so, we are fortunate that the likes of Aimard take responsibility for ‘passing on’ their knowledge and experiences of working with these masters.

(1) For further reading on this see ‘Analysing Performance and Performing Analysis’, Nicholas Cook, Rethinking Music

Thoughts, sounds and processes

Approaching the end of my Masters degree it has become increasingly clear that I struggle with the essential task of writing words. With a PhD place confirmed for October 2017, I have decided to create this blog to encourage and improve my writing skills during the coming gap year.

My research interests primarily focuses around Mozart scholarship but I also have a deep love of twentieth and twenty-first century music.

This blog will cover a number of areas. I will probably review books and CDs (or indeed performances) in addition to sharing aspects of my research.