London Violinist, Viola Player & Arranger For Hire

Winning them over

I’m not going to try and offer a blow-by-blow account of gigs with the Filthy Spectacula, Kindred Spirit (full band) and the Kindred Spirit Duo over the last four weeks or so (or indeed over coming months). Suffice to say they have been many, varied but all on their own terms successful.

One thing I want to pull out as a particular satisfaction of mine though is winning audiences over that aren’t predisposed to love us.

Of course it’s great to play a gig with lots of people knowing the band, knowing some of the songs, expecting a good performance and going in set up to have a great time. In some ways those are the easy ones.

But in some ways it feels like more of an achievement to start from scratch, largely unknowns to the audience, and get them on side. It happens (to some extent) frequently doing duo bar gigs, where most people aren’t there for the music at all frankly and if they are it’s not for us specifically – it’s always nice to win some people’s attention away from their pints, banter or the footy on the big screen and feel like you’ve given a performance rather than background music.

It’s also a frequent, though far from universal, condition for both originals-led full bands – with their unconventional line-ups and, in each case, casual overspilling of genre boundaries, audiences often have little idea where to place us, and all unsigned originals acts spend a lot of their time playing to people who’ve never heard of them, notwithstanding repeat bookings at some loyal venues, a handful of dedicated fans and the Filth’s growing presence on the steampunk subculture circuit.

A particularly striking example was the last Filthy Spectacula gig. We were playing a scooter rally in Oxfordshire, first up of the weekend’s live music (there were something like five other acts over two nights). Two band members’ partners were there, one couple had come especially to see us, and the organiser had booked us. I don’t think anyone else really knew who we were or what we were going to do (and it hadn’t been particularly advertised when music would start either). We started our set to about ten people including the above ‘followers’ and the sound crew, and having been the one to get the gig my heart sank.

But as we played on people drifted over from the adjoining bar area, and from the camping across the field. From largely awkward reserve, the mood of the mods, punks and bikers under that stage marquee started heading towards lairy energetic appreciation (in broad daylight, before 8 p.m.!). We must have finished the set to a good 50 people, many of them getting well into the collective silliness of a Filthy set and a turnout as strong as the tightly-drilled punk covers act that followed us, and I lost count of the number of people congratulating us, talking up the set and indeed parting with hard-earned cash for our merch. It became a classic Filthy Spectacula gig – from starting off looking like a washout.

So keep your eyes on our upcoming gigs pages – because summer is busy gigging time, and you never know what a gig can end up like with one of these acts playing.

Stick to the script?

The last week of July saw me in one of my less frequent roles: musical theatre pit musician. This also, incidentally, followed upon the switch from a few weeks crammed with viola work (see the last few posts, apart from the immediately previous one) to a month or so of only performing on violin – mostly band gigs, but also this stint playing for Oliver! in an amateur production at the Margate Winter Gardens. (If you’re wondering how that was a practical proposition, Stevie’s uncle owns a maisonette in Broadstairs which the family pretty much share, so we moved there for a week. I did have to take desk work to the nearest hotel with WiFi almost every day though!)

Reductions in band scoring are normal for amateur musicals (by the way, so is paying the band – there is a genuine circuit of people earning money from playing for am dram … ), for reasons of space, money or ability to find the requisite players. In this instance, the parts hired proclaimed themselves the ‘combo version’, which still would have required something like a dozen players to follow in full, about the size of most amateur pit bands. We dispensed with second percussion, merged the remaining percussion and second keys onto one player (who therefore had as much gear in the pit as any other three players put together) and did without oboe and bassoon – still leaving flute/picc, clarinet/bass clarinet, horn, trombone, violin, cello, bass guitar, piano and the aforementioned percussion/keys doubling. One of the first and most striking things there is that it sounds more like a pocket orchestra, where most musicals are scored more like a slightly transmogrified big band, with a backbone of saxes (albeit doubling everything under the sun), trumpets and rhythm. This corresponds mostly to the difference in sound of the score, and in an orchestration making a big deal of being reduced, it was quite odd as a violinist to find myself mostly either doubling the tune or doing off-beat ‘plonks’ in oom-pah texture, with the occasional sustained line in held chords. Having been in orchestral mode recently, it felt almost wasteful of a line.

Be that as it may, the main challenge for me (apart from a leaning to D flat major in the opening few numbers and some inconvenient double stops that were clearly the result of reducing the scoring from a true string section) was something rather different. I didn’t know Oliver! that well – I’ve seen it, as a child, and of course you think you know the big songs, but in my case mostly that means knowing the tunes. I’d completely forgotten that the verses of ‘Reviewing the Situation’ are punctuated by violin cadenzas, until I got that far through the part in the band call (fortunately about a week before opening!). Now they’re not impossibly difficult, and they’re quite short, but of course they’re totally exposed – perhaps all the more so for being in a miked band. (In my case actually using the Fishman pickup that’s still attached to the acoustic violin, which the sound engineer was very happy about – another unexpected justification for the apparently unnecessary situation of a pickup on my acoustic instrument when I have a perfectly viable electric one.) And they do run very high, particularly the middle one of the three (just over three octaves above middle C, which is a register I don’t use much now most of my classical playing is viola!).

However, most of you know my tendencies by now; once I had done a couple of hours’ solid work to get them under my fingers, my instinct was immediately to show off a little. Partly by making them more ‘expressively’ virtuoso-sounding (without actually changing any notes; cheap musical tricks really). But what I gradually realised through the dress rehearsals and first couple of performances is that there is no particular dramatic function to these musical interludes; rather than responding to dialogue or stage business, they actually tend to require some kind of stage business to cover them up or respond to them.

In the midst of a mostly evidently amateur production, Fagin was being played by one of two career professionals on board; he and the director between them had gone for a fairly full-blown comic through the fourth wall approach here, with him going to do something or other and then turning round in puzzlement at the noise, checking his ears, etc. Of course this wasn’t reliant on the exact length of the cadenzas. So I started stretching out the last one with improvisation. Not too much, but just teasing things a little. I could be heard and seen from the stage quite clearly (the ‘pit’ was actually a roped-off section of the floor in front of the stage, not sunk), and if I didn’t have to face sheet music, or a conductor, or a microphone, could turn and see most of the stage myself quite comfortably to, so conditions were safer than it sounds for collective improvisation. On the last night (it wasn’t a long run, remember), I went as far as daring to make it sound like I had finished (by this point, Fagin had been doing the universal circling finger sign language for ‘keep going’) – and then cutting him off with one more phrase as he went to start the last verse. Cue mock-angry flounce. Perfect.

What’s remarkable about this is Fagin and I didn’t discuss it (though the MD did egg me on a bit!), until I thanked him for putting up with it after the last show. It was just one of those performance things that seemed quite natural (and I suspect most productions do something similar at some point, though I have no direct evidence for that). When I did thank Fagin, his response was a perfect example of how performers come to see their work as almost language, inasmuch as his response (clearly I hadn’t got on his nerves, good thing too!) was to thank me for ‘some good banter’. Yep, banter in the form of violin playing. A concept followers of The Filthy Spectacula and Kindred Spirit will probably associate with me only too easily …

Triple header

The weekend of 21-23 July saw me wearing all my band gig hats in succession. I haven’t got so much use out of the electric violin since I played a week’s run of a musical on it! And it’s always good to have performances with regular collaborators and material I know, however interesting the one-off freelance jobs can be.

Friday night, Kindred Spirit full band at Farncombe Music Club. An interesting event this; the organisation put on regular gigs, with ticketed entry, merch stalls, licensed bar, full PA and all the usual trappings of a rock gig … in the village church. Perhaps surprisingly, it seems to work to everyone’s satisfaction, and they clearly have a decent number of regulars who show up repeatedly and support the acts booked in (which range from unsigned originals groups like ourselves, to classic rock names now heading towards the nostalgia circuit, to polished tributes). We were backed up by the monumental drumming (and monumental kit!) of Les Binks, seasoned session pro and one-time Judas Priest rhythm man, spurring me on to perhaps even greater energy than usual:


(photo courtesy Chris Davenport)

Saturday night, Kindred Spirit duo going upmarket as a function group rather than our more frequent bar gig bookings. Very upmarket in fact, in the surroundings of a northern London-rural fringe hotel with its own helipad and arboretum. I kid you not.

Sunday afternoon, the Filthy Spectacula making a rare appearance in daylight, headlining the inaugural (hopefully to become an event series) Steampunk Sunday in Nottingham, spearheaded by our long-term superfan and patron Greg O’Regan. This has to be one of the most diverse bills we’ve played, opened by a lookalike and soundalike George Formby tribute (with backing tracks and live banjolele), and further warmed up by a goth/folk/blues duo, with circus act slots between music. All set in a Victorian music hall converted into a pub, with pop-up printing press (genuine Victorian letterpress technique) and other trade stalls doing business in corners and those punters who weren’t there for the event bemusedly eating and drinking – or getting into the spirit of things. A very small stage, a very large horseshoe balcony and a wireless belt pack constituted a challenge I was only going to resist for so long. As the opticians say, better with one?

Or with two?

This was also the gig at which we achieved as a band a goal I think we will struggle to better: someone in the audience actually danced so hard she broke her shoe. Stretch goal: someone breaks both shoes dancing to our set. All in the all the most fun anyone’s had on a Sunday afternoon in quite a while.

While July still held another stretch in a nominal orchestra pit (see post to follow), these three configurations own almost all my bookings for August. Come back again (or check the gig list on the home page) to keep up with those outings.

We were Eaten by Owls

No, not literally. A couple of weeks ago, Stevie and I were engaged in this:

How to introduce you to the unique musical phenomenon that is He was Eaten by Owls … other than letting you play around on the Facebook page, Bandcamp, YouTube channel and so on and make up your own mind …

The project is mostly the brainchild of Kyle Perfect – composer / organiser / sometime singer / guitarist who traces his musical roots to the fingerstyle legends of 60s/70s British folk (Wiz Jones, Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and so on to the end of the chapter), but who is also a massive aficionado of the minimalist and aleatoric experimentation of Steve Reich and in love with electronic music. The result is as diverse as it sounds, and across as wide a range from intuitive to intellectual, even cerebral.

The other full-time member of the band is drummer Vilius Pavarde, who seems to be on all the recordings and videos from the beginning, even the ones that are just live duos, and has managed to internalise Kyle’s love of irregular and oft-changing time signatures to a degree I can largely only envy.

We were recording the second full album under the … Owls name, at a superb residential studio called Shaken Oak, somewhere on a farm in the middle of nowhere near Witney. It’s a while since I’ve done a thoroughly studio-oriented project as a ‘session’ musician; by the time I (with viola), Stevie, my oft-time freelance colleague Maria Kroon and double bassist Robin Breeze (bridging the jazz and classical characters of the instrument across the recording) got started, drum, guitar, piano and harp parts were already recorded, together with the organ and chamber choir core of a track with brief string overdubs; we were using these and a click to add the string parts (usually as a section live in the room, as you can see, plus as many overdubs and splices as required for the number of parts); after we finished, a handful of wind players added their lines later again. I think Kyle and Vilf were living at the studio for a good week while the other players – some repeat contributors to the recordings, others like me new – came and went.

The process was varied, to put it mildly. Some pieces were straightforwardly fully scored, like the one you can hear here:

Though, as with most material that has never been out live before, there was a great deal of ‘editorial’ work going on refining rhythms, dynamics, phrasing and so on, and making decisions about double-tracking and editing as we went.

Others were instruction-based improvisation, or directed handling of minimal cells, in the 1960s-and-after experimental art music tradition – I wasn’t exaggerating about Kyle and Steve Reich, or more recent composers influenced by him. Of course, we left with essentially just raw takes done, and potentially much decision-making about editing and indeed inclusion and exclusion (anywhere from takes and parts to whole numbers) to be done – and quite possibly still in progress.

Studio recording is an exhausting process, and it gets more so the more you are looking for a clean take rather than an energetic pseudo-live sound, or playing material more or less new to you (we had had parts and demos to practice, but still), or involved in all the playing while you’re there rather than alternating with bandmates. All were true this time, and the recordings were probably the longest and most tiring 48 hours’ musical work I can recall! For all of which, I wouldn’t have missed doing this for the world – so little of what I do is actually radical or boundary-pushing, and I’m fascinated to hear the finished product when it reaches release. And I do think it’s interesting that this one of the few projects I’ve been involved in to have arts grant funding of any sort (together with a concert of orchestral music by female composers, and probably others I’ve forgotten). Watch this space for links to the album!

All strung up

Still running substantially in arrears – 14th and 15th July I was back towards old stamping ground, though actually a bit south of Oxford itself, with a group of mostly more local string players and a soprano, rehearsing and performing Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Britten’s Les Illuminations and Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra.

If you’re thinking the only one of those you’ve heard of is the Elgar, that’s hardly surprising and there are reasons. The Tippett and Britten are generally the preserve of professional performers with a certain amount of charitable / government arts funding behind them; written within a couple of years of each other during the second world war, they are somewhat demanding of the audience and much more heavily so of the players (and singer, and conductor!). Classical aficionados of certain stripes will definitely be drawn by them, but they don’t pull in a general audience in the way even that Holst’s Planets or The Rite of Spring might (and yes, I have seen both done by amateur orchestras, though it’s certainly rare!).

The Britten poses most of the challenges that might be expected from the composer and that are specific to strings and voice (this being the item with the soprano soloist): some very rapid and very high writing, chromaticism and dissonance (though perhaps less of that than popularly associated with Modernist art music), and a certain amount of advanced technique, mostly harmonics. For the singer, a big range, some truly terrifying pitching and the requirement to project difficult writing over a lot of accompanying noise.

The Tippet is to some extent more intriguing as a playing experience, and in a sense less conventional. Unusually for a piece under the ‘concerto for orchestra’ title, there is little really virtuosic writing in most of the parts (though the violas, of which I was one, do have to reach some unusually high notes here and there!). The first and last movements (of three) are mostly built around rhythmic shifts and rearrangements within a constant speed. The first is mostly in what be called 4/4, but with the 8 quavers grouped every way conceivable: 2 groups of 4, 3+3+2 (the classic ‘Latin’ pulse), 3+2+3 … some sections of 3+3+2 stretch out briefly into a couple of bars of 6/8 followed by one of 2/4. These rhythms are often laid on top of each other in different parts, making locking everything together both crucial and difficult. The last movement gains its initial impetus from shifting back and forth between 3/4 and 6/8 (a less rigidly alternating version of the ‘America’ effect, for West Side Story fans), but carries on in later sections to take the same quaver movement into sections mingling 4/4, 3/4 and 2/4. The middle, slow, movement, in total contrast, is rhythmically quite consistent and relatively straightforward, and seems to gain most of its impetus from chromatic, dissonant, yet lyrical multi-part fugues.

In all of this there is an additional challenge: the ‘double’ string orchestra of the title. The strings are grouped here as two full orchestras, each of the usual 1st and 2nd violins, violas, cellos and double basses. That means ten sections scored (mostly) fully independently, and with the numbers generally available to today’s performers, only a handful of players per part; we had one double bass per orchestra and two of most other things, with a couple of violin sections stretching to three. Even with a conductor, therefore, the demands of ensemble playing are almost those of twentieth-century chamber music, since there is hardly anyone else to follow!

Both pieces did convey an interesting indication of the size string section considered normal for professional orchestras when they were written (c. 1940), however. The Britten has one section of the viola part marked ‘first 3 desks only’ – in other words, 6 players should play that section, and therefore there should ideally be significantly more than 6 violas altogether. Ultimately similarly, there is a passage in the Tippett where the orchestra 2 viola part (mine), and I think several others, are marked ‘first desk only’ – suggesting at least 4 violists per orchestra. The implication of this, with usual rules of thumb for proportioning string sections, is a minimum total line-up of:
12 1st violins
10 2nd violins
8 violas
6 cellos
4 double basses
When I was in county youth orchestra (with, obviously, extra players more or less free and in fact some pressure to open up more places rather than fewer), we had up to 14 players on each violin part and that was considered very big. I have played with amateur orchestras that had one section or another bigger than the above (usually cellos or 2nd violins), but usually where the ensemble was very inclusive on standard! Interestingly, though, a couple of days after this concert, I was flipping through a book of essays by Steve Reich, and came across a very short one on the makeup of orchestras (I forget the date but it must have been at least a couple of decades later than Britten and Tippett’s scores). In this, he stated calmly that the standard forces for a US pro orchestra were 18 first violins with other sections in proportion, and recommended to composers that they consider cutting this to 12 firsts and so forth, describing this as more like a classical orchestra (in the strict sense, meaning roughly late eighteenth century). For the record, when I have played classical music with ensembles trying to do it sympathetically and without pressure to include every member of a larger group, it has tended to be with four or at most six violinists per part, and of course fewer of the lower strings, probably down to a single double bass – and this was about the size we had for the Tippett and Britten.

The curious thing about that last statement is that, particularly for the Tippett, it seemed appropriate – revealing, in a sense, the dense construction and tightly interwoven individual lines, particularly the rhythmic criss-crossing, given bowed strings do not have massive amounts of attack in the sound, rather than obscuring them in a large wash. Perhaps Reich’s suggestions, too, did not go further because cutting one third of the string section seemed quite radical enough. In any case, the general challenge for the musicians I work with tends to be the reverse – mustering enough strings to handle the music, or often to balance wind forces which are dictated by the orchestration, while keeping costs and the amount of persuading that has to be done down by not going any larger than that; and for the players, working effectively at just on tipping point of not having enough (perhaps particularly when I’m in the viola section!).

In any case, to drag myself back from an unintended essay on orchestration and performance practice, this was a challenging concert (one that stretched the conductor’s technique too!) but one I’m very glad to have done and I think we can call an artistic success. It was followed immediately by two days in a recording studio working on something much more modern again, in some senses even more avant-garde, and certainly in places no less challenging. Tune in next time for write-up on that …

Changing the odds

Curiously enough, the last job I’ve just come off was theatrical and involved a reduced instrumental group but an undiminished cast from the original version. It has that much in common with the job I need to reach back to in order to restore something like chronological order to my posts, though (as will eventually become clear) little else!

The 10th to the 14th of August saw LunchBreak Opera present their début production – Puccini’s Suor Angelica. I have some history with profit share opera companies, and so (besides understanding the main reasons why they exist) have some appreciation of the imagination that went into making this one actually get an audience and have some profit to share out at the end of the process, besides being artistically substantial. Here’s roughly how it goes:

Step 1: Pick a short opera. Suor Angelica is a one-act drama, normally performed in a double bill with something else as it runs for just under an hour in most versions. That enables, at least in part:

Step 2: Actually do a run, not a single performance. There were nine performances over five days, aiming to catch audiences on lunch breaks (1-2pm) or after work (6-7) – I had to dep out the last one as I was travelling to Wantage to do my next job, but that’s another story. This means you get many more people through the door, and because you aren’t paying by the hour in a profit-share model (except perhaps for the venue) your overheads only rise minimally.

Step 3: Stage the opera. Sounds obvious, but all my other experience of profit-share (as opposed to amateur) opera has been concert performances. Which shouldn’t be under-rated, but putting on ‘actual’ dramatically realised opera for entrance by donation, in a just-round-the-corner church rather than a forbidding grand opera house, definitely has the appeal of the unusual in a way that concert performances (which end up feeling like another classical choral/orchestral concert with soloists) tend to lack. But I’m getting ahead of myself on musical details.

Step 4: Cut the number of heads involved. Sharing profits always means cutting overheads to the bone, but if you want the shares to be worth having, the obvious response is to then minimise how many shares there are. In this instance, the cast was not huge (though I think there are real limits to how small you can make the ‘chorus’ in this opera, as they are subdivided, given solos, etc.), but the real advance was in the orchestra.

Take a look at the dress rehearsal photo above. You can only see my bowing arm; the harpist wasn’t in that rehearsal; and the organist is out of shot; but otherwise that is the whole ‘orchestra’ for these performances. Musical director Matthew O’Keefe took on the less than enviable task of reducing Puccini’s vast symphony orchestra score to five solo strings, harp, organ (and a fairly small electronic organ at that) and percussion, without losing its scope.

A diversion here to the nature of playing Puccini, which was new to me. He occupies a more or less unique position among major operatic composers, I would suggest. Musically, he is fairly straightforwardly of the late Romantic (though chronologically he overlaps with the emergence of Modernism, it had little noticeable influence stylistically); certainly singinPuccini appears to a non-singer to be somewhat similar in purely sonic terms to singing Verdi or Wagner. Dramatically, however, his great step is to abandon the clean number-divisions and almost ceremonial progression that grand opera inherited from Classical-era opera seria by way of bel canto. The action of a Puccini opera proceeds seamlessly through an entire act (since 19th-century scenery, and scenery moving equipment, demanded an interval for a change of set), and the music flows continuously over the same span of time – of course, in this case that was the entire opera, it being in one act. So much I knew from watching Puccini; what I discovered is that there are correspondingly no divisions in the score. Labels such as ‘aria’, ‘intermezzo’ and so on, which are used in discussing portions of Puccini operas, are in fact merely conventional labels; they are not marked into the music, where almost any earlier composer would have made them movement headings. There are no larger breaks in musical thought than pauses and changes of time signature or speed.

That said, while Puccini’s dramaturgy is that of the ‘well-made plays’ that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century – Wilde and Shaw being the most notable English exponents – and broke the grip of spectacular melodrama in theatrical writing, the emotional level is not, and the intensity to be achieved by all performers is definitely that of his late Romantic musical landscape, whether entirely psychologically plausible to a detached mind or not.

For all sorts of reasons, Puccini roles cannot be sung in a much more intimate style than its composer had in mind, even if the accompaniment is much quieter and the building much smaller than he intended – full-blown operatic soprano technique is indispensable. Suor Angelica having an all-female cast, soprano is particularly the point here, and especially the title role, full of emotional wracking and culminating (spoilers) in suicide and last-minute repentance. Sufficiently much so, in fact, and so demanding are the vertiginous high notes towards the end, that the company split that role, with Demelza Stafford and Alexandria Wreggelsworth taking roughly half each. Mezzo Christie Cook, having to perform almost equally challenging vocal gymnastics at the other end of the female vocal range as the ice-queen villain of the piece, was required to stay the whole course.

In any case, the impact on we eight instrumentalists was a need to match almost undiluted operatic performance as a chamber group, rather than a sweeping symphonic texture. You could almost say we were outnumbered. Of course there is something immediate about one-to-a-part playing and smaller groups which can be perhaps more intense than vast textures into which individual parts blend; but there are restrictions on volume, and reducing a vast score to a smallish one inevitably produces extra technical challenges to the individual players which can be a distraction from truly communicative playing. Overall, Matthew had to roughly spend the first part of the run making all the loud sections of the score louder and more intense (particularly the organ(!)), for both practical and expressive reasons; and then (the point at which I really started to respect his musical vision) the remainder of it making the quietest ones quieter, so as to create the maximum possible range and contrast. Romantic opera should almost always be a roller-coaster; the bigger the dips and rises, the better.

The final challenge of this performance was working with, in a sense, new music: the composition was far from new, the arrangement entirely so, and that meant extra adjustments of mind-set for both the instrumentalists playing new parts and the singers having to stand upon, as it were, new versions of cues and accompaniment. While I’m not new to new music (paradox?), it always adds an extra shot of adrenaline for there to be no exactly corresponding recording to check up against, no straightforward reference point.

All in all, definitely work out of the ordinary, and an experience I would happily repeat for all that it was hard work! Those statements at least were in common with the two jobs I went on to (both with my partner Stevie on cello, as it happens) over the weekend running off the end of the Suor Angelica run. But for that, you’ll definitely have to wait for another post.

ATCL

I know, it’s been a while since I posted; I’ve been very busy (mostly gigging / recording, plus desk work) and have a lot of writing to do to catch up. It will happen eventually, but for now I interrupt strict chronological sequence to bring you news of my diploma result.

Firstly and most importantly, I passed! Which is the only bit of information from this post that’s probably of real professional value to me in the longer term. However, I find some of the other details of interest so I’m going to subject my reading public to them anyway.

Please don’t think I’m humble-bragging when I say I’m pleasantly surprised to have got a high pass in this, much closer to the boundary with distinction marks than fail ones. It was my first performance exam in [thinks] 13 years and my first ever on viola, I’ve hated auditions and performance exams since I was barely a teenager and I generally think I do badly in them compared to playing for a live audience. So perhaps the practice hours, intermittent tension with my flatmates, stress, travel and expense paid off in breaking some of that fear with a stronger than expected showing!

The sheet of handwritten feedback I have in front of me contains some interesting insights into how my examiner heard this performance. Keywords from the notes include: passion, urgency, intent, style, atmospheric, charming and elegant (possibly my favourite pull-quote, on the Classical sonata that is probably my favourite of the programme), delightful contrasts (!), sensitive and generous, evocative and plaintive, deceptive simplicity, huge tragic weight (!!). The examiner’s own summary runs:

The performance was assured, with a clear understanding of the relevance and significance of the pieces presented. Technique was stretched at time, but playing was never less than persuasive, with creative and secure musicianship.

The marks are distributed (unequally) across four areas, and I think ranking these in order of how well I did in them is an interesting exercise too; from high to low: presentation skills (mostly planning what I would play and writing programme notes), musical sense, communication, techniques (though even on the last my mark equates to a solid pass).

Overall, the weighting perhaps represents the best of what I would have dared to think of myself as a classical player: solidly up to scratch technically (but always with room for improvement … ), but really shining in musical understanding, communication and holding attention as a performer; without the suggestion of overdoing it for this style and context that I had genuinely (and I think reasonably) feared to encounter.

Of course, all of this triggers a bigger question: what next? But for that I don’t yet have an answer, and it may be quite some time before I do; unless you count ‘the next gig!’.

Don’t pay me, pay my boss

Saturday’s concert with La Folie was another charming, ambitious and thoroughly enjoyable trip through some highways, and some decidedly less travelled byways, of Baroque repertoire. A substantially more ‘orchestral’ lineup than my previous outing with them brought theorbo, viola da gamba, trumpet and pairs of timpani, oboes and flutes into the fold besides strings and harpsichord, while most of the programme featured at least one of a quartet of singers. Focusing on the English Baroque meant a bigger range of time and style too, with Handel’s late compositions already leaning to the galant in places, in considerable contrast with Purcell two generations earlier still showing signs of the early Baroque before contrapuntalism became everything.

The consort is an artistically ambitious project – of historically informed performance practice, even if authentic instruments throughout is impractical, and of chamber-style playing with great autonomous responsibility for each performer, besides the wide-ranging approach to programming, so different to narrow canonist approaches seen in all too much classical planning that does not have arts charity backing; and (not unimportantly) of simple commitment to paying a respectable going rate to musicians. What I regret to report is that the audiences rarely amount to anything like a plausible break-even point as sole source of income.

So Luke, harpsichord / continuo extraordinaire and more importantly organiser, mover and shaker of the whole enterprise is finding that his own pockets unsurprisingly cannot sustain running an orchestra, even a very small one. So he is turning to crowdfunding to make La Folie run.

I’m old-fashioned about music as about many things; I would rather see a live audience pay for live entertainment to continue functioning if possible. So if you can come to a Chichester concert (or even to one of the upcoming string of performances on the Isle of Wight, which sadly I can’t join the group for), please do and spread the word. But if those just aren’t practical parts of the world for you, maybe you could put some fund’s to the consort through the crowdfunding page. You’ll see there that exciting plans are afoot, and some rather special rewards for donors in the offing. Watch this space! – but please watch from having ‘bought in’ first if possible …

In other news, I’m spending lunchtimes and early evenings playing Puccini in the City! If you have an hour to spare at 1 or 6 pm this week, come and see Suor Angelica up very close and personal at St Botolph Bishopsgate with Lunchbreak Opera. I can assure it loses no intensity from a reduced scoring and a smaller space. And by curious synchronicity, like the main subject of this post no set charge but donations are courteously invited! See you there.

Incoming: Outbound

It really is a busy few weeks coming up for me musically. So in case you fancy seeing some of these as they happen, rather than readin all abaht it afterwards, here’s a round-up of my musical remainder of July. Almost all of which involves travelling away from home to play. London – less where I need to be, more where it’s easier to get to everywhere else from …

First performance out the gate is my second booking with La Folie (it’s about time the acoustic violin had a proper outing again). St John’s Chapel in Chichester on Saturday 8th will see us playing as a slightly heftier orchestra this time than last, with woodwinds, trumpet, timpani and theorbo (I’m very excited about seeing and hearing one of those up close because, well, instrument geek) as well as voices, for a concert of English music from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Oh, and I’m taking one of the solo parts in a Handel concerto grosso.

Before I get to that, though, I will have joined rehearsals for Lunchbreak Opera‘s Suor Angelica, which I think is a great concept. A Puccini one-act opera (Puccini, by the way, surely one of the greatest dramatists of canonical opera), reduced to chamber orchestration to allow performance out of a large theatrical setting and put on at lunchtime and after work (1 & 6pm) all week (10-14 July) on the edge of central London (St Botolph Bishopsgate, specifically). There should, I would have thought, be an extra vocal intimacy to cutting the accompaniment down to five strings, harp and percussion too – though it certainly makes for serious work for the violist!

Sadly I’m having to dep out the very last performance of Suor Angelica in order to make it to rehearsals for my next job, which takes me to the outskirts of Wantage, south of Oxford. Specifically to Challow Park Studios, possibly the most grandly specified recording studio complex you will come across outside of a major record label (four-manual bespoke-voiced electronic organ, anyone?) with a large hall that its owner claims would be ideally sized for a Beethoven-scale orchestra plus live audience. We aren’t quite putting that much in it, but will have a string orchestra big enough to divide in two, and soprano soloist for one number. Can you guess what it is yet? Elgar’s String Serenade to warm up, introducing a classic pairing of mid-twentieth-century English works (composed about a year apart, I think): Britten’s Les Illuminations (with Sarah Barnett) and Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra (in which, with the numbers we’re using, almost every player will end up a soloist at some point!). Vigorous, dramatic and uncompromising but not I think difficult for the sake of it or inhumane: modernist art music at one of its diverse finest.

From there I will go straight to the only one of these I can’t invite you along to, but which I will include for completeness’ sake: two days’ studio recording with art-rock outfit He was Eaten by Owls (no, I haven’t established the reason for the name. Yet). In some ways more experimental than Tippett and Britten, this will feature frequent suspensions of time signature, minimalist-style building loops, prog-ish leaps of section within a single track, and punningly evasive titles among other things. I look forward to hearing the results!

Just a couple of days later, I’ll be at the band call for a run of Oliver! in Margate (made practical by my other half’s family’s shared holiday home in Broadstairs … keep up … ) – the run is 27 to 29 July at Margate Winter Gardens. Between band call and tech / dress rehearsals, though, I have a packed weekend of band gigs: Friday 21st Farncombe Music Club play hosts to the full Kindred Spirit band (and support Jump).  Saturday 22nd Elaine and I have a function booking (no, you can’t come to somebody’s 30th wedding anniversary. Well, unless they’ve invited you). 23rd July The Filthy Spectacula start a long run of summer gigs by heading up to Nottingham to entertain, provoke or deafen the local steampunks in a punk / goth band lineup that I’m sure will be perfect for a Sunday afternoon …

And that takes me into August, and up to time to finish this post! See you at something I hope.

Visual music

As an aural-preference person, I can from time to time feel a misfit in a visually-focused society (let’s face it, the whole digital sphere is visual-first. Even when you realise reading text can be a semi-aural experience if that’s how your sensory preferences lie, how often do you come across long chunks of running text by itself? Other than my blog posts, you cheeky monkey!). But even for me, there is a sense that any non-classical music comes inherently in a visual package – not that classical music doesn’t too, but for some audiences and some performers that package is best minimised, and I don’t think that’s really true in any other musical context.

I see a lot of photos of myself at gigs (and have had to train myself to not cringe too much looking at them out of context and out of the moment!), but not that many that really capture the sense of what I try to project performing folk, rock, etc. – perhaps because I do that projecting primarily through movement rather than any visual tool or device that’s easily captured in an image. Trying to capture movement in a photo is surely one of the biggest challenges of that particular art.

This photo, I thought, gets about as close to freezing the energy and appearance of me at a rock band as I could hope to find. Shame, given my vehement aversion to playing solo, that the rest of the band are all out of shot, but you can’t have everything:

Massive credit to Chris Davenport for not just capturing but creating this – there is far more to why this works than just pressing the shutter at the right moment!

Rather than write up another Saturday’s gigs (yes, two – but both technically part of the same event and with the same group, a couple of hours apart; Kindred Spirit Duo doing what we do best a little off our usual turf), I thought I’d review some other photos that have seemed to catch something of the spirit of those live performances where so many people ask me afterwards where I get the energy. If nothing else, they should make you smile!

If I ever do a concept album about nineteenth-century séances, this is definitely the cover art … something much more arty and atmospheric from an only slightly earlier Kindred Spirit gig, also by Chris Davenport.

‘This fiddler is fiddling so furiously he appears to be phasing into another dimension!’ was the comment from Yellow Book manager Rob Mitton when he uploaded this photo of one of the earlier times The Filthy Spectacula played his pub. I suspect there would be more motion-blurred photos of me playing with the Filth if people uploaded more and deleted fewer of them …

Credit to Peter Samuels of RP Photography Solutions for capturing this one, at my very first gig with the Kindred Spirit full band. Those tight white jeans were very popular with some members of the audience, but my word are they uncomfortable for jumping around in! Cat Cooper (flute) in the background hadn’t yet had the chance to get used to my live shenanigans and takes far less notice these days!

Very punk (I swear that’s my first finger pointing up, but some people saw otherwise when this was first posted to Facebook) and very early Filthy Spectacula here – those black gloves didn’t last long as stage gear; even fingerless they made my hands sweat enough to seriously endanger my grip on the instrument! Taken (or at least posted) by Mel Cook.

July is a very busy month musically, even if most of it will be more soberly dressed and static, so keep your eyes peeled for news of everything from lunchtime Puccini to rock festivals to Sunday afternoon steampunk to art-rock studio work – just as soon as I find time to write the announcements.