London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

Electronic acoustic

In the middle of the recent live playing marathon, it was gratifying to finally get to hear a public version of Tom Pugh’s (aka rosputin) electronic track ‘Henry’s Tune’.

We collaborated on this pretty substantially, sending back and forth arrangement ideas, demo overdubs and revised mixes before going into a studio (Rubix, whose house engineer and tracking room did an excellent job) together to record what seemed like innumerable sections, parts, improvised solos and overdubs (at one point I had 5 different parts going on, across viola and violin, all of which were double-tracked!).

I think the finished product is a fascinating piece of work. All the string lines are written and played by me on acoustic instruments, though some have been shuffled around, sampled and reassembled or processed to a greater or lesser extent as the mix and production settled in. Everything else on the track is looped and mixed from samples and keyboards in the usual way for this genre by Tom – though it’s now so integrated it can be hard to tell which some parts are! It was a fun project to work on, something new to say I can competently do – and an experience I’d be happy to repeat, if any producers out there fancy collaborating on something!

Captured again

… only on camera.

Between my first rehearsal and concert on the project in my last post, I spent an evening at All Hallows’ Church, Twickenham, using their impressive acoustic and satisfyingly decorative interior to bolster viola performances to the cameras and mikes of Clive Turner (to whom my massive thanks for recording promo material for two of my projects lately!). I started off by wrestling to deliver the best possible take of the Prelude to Bach’s suite in C major (originally for cello), before being joined by the adaptable and impressively technically fluent Connor Fogel on piano for the impassioned Romantic lament that is in danger of becoming my viola calling card, Henri Vieuxtemps‘s Elégie. We finished off by taking the opportunity to record a jazz standard: ‘Blue Skies’. If a trend for jazz viola ever gets going, I want it on record that I was there first!

I’m keeping my powder dry on the ‘art music’ recordings that were the real purpose of this session. However, for some fun after the end of the Bank Holiday weekend, here’s our version of Irving Berlin, keeping things uncomplicated and spontaneous:

And for office multitaskers, there is an audio-only version too:

Let me know what you think! Massive thanks to Clive and Connor in particular, and watch this space for more serious (if not downright intellectual and tragic) music from this session …

In C (minor)

A week ago (Sunday 30th) I presented myself at an imposing pile of stone and brick on Victoria Embankment, feeling as out of place as I always do in London’s financial district (walking from Bank Tube station, down Threadneedle Street to Liverpool Street station, for instance through the high-earning office types rushing from one meeting to another, the restaurants and outfitters that could swallow my bank balance in one gulp, the immaculately polished career women – and the homeless so established as to be practically able to claim squatters’ right). I was there to bolster the viola section of the JP Morgan Symphony Orchestra for a final two rehearsals leading up to a concert.

Workplace music-making is not that unusual. Many offices, including Oxfam’s British headquarters when I was working there, have community-style choirs that meet on a lunchbreak; my last in-house employer, Oxford University Press, had a choir that was more like a small choral society, with whom I sang Rossini’s Stabat Mater among other things, and a chamber orchestra was launched there just as I was leaving, which with tentative management backing seems to be becoming a considerable success in a short space of time.

Running to a whole symphony orchestra is rather rarer however, even if Morgan Chase must have a very large and well-educated workforce in London to draw from (and let’s face it, good amateur classical musicians are generally university educated and of white-collar origins). Unsurprisingly, a number (I’m unsure how large) of regular members are in fact not employees, but I was impressed to be able to guess from communications about invoicing that we two additional violas and the harpist were probably the only hired bumpers for this concert – either that or the only ones who had not played with the orchestra before, in its four concerts of existence.

This counts as remarkable both because there are always a lot of specific requirements for an orchestra, but also because the programme for this concert was demanding on forces. We opened with the prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and followed it with two symphonies: Schubert’s fourth, and Brahms’s first. Of those, the only one that could be described as at all for chamber orchestra is the Schubert (for essentially Classical orchestral forces, like most of his work).

Orchestra programming varies greatly in its coherence; some people and organisations plan meticulously thematically or biographically connected concerts, others pick pieces either without much reference to each other or for deliberate contrast. This concert raised all sorts of interesting musical ideas by being united around a key centre. Wagner is not much given to staying in one tonality, but the Meistersinger Prelude is both to a comedy and seeking to evoke a somewhat antique atmosphere, and so besides featuring a fugal section and a gavotte-like theme that clearly evokes truly light comic opera, it starts and ends at least in an undeniable C major. Both symphonies, on the other hand, are in C minor.

This last fact may seem to tend away from a key unity – especially as C major tended to be used in the Classical and into the Romantic as a rather straightforward, unsophisticated key, much used with trumpets and timpani, tending to monumental vigour but little complexity; whereas C minor, at three flats, was towards the traditionally melancholy extreme of regularly used keys until the mid-nineteenth century. However, by the late Classical there was an already developing tradition of ending minor-key symphonies in the tonic major, in a sort of greatly extended tierce de Picardie that could last for anything from a coda to the entire last movement. This became much solidified by Beethoven’s monumental influence over the writing of symphonies in particular for decades after his death; the major key last movement (excluding perhaps the introduction) approach becoming linked with the struggle from darkness to light symphonic model found in two of his most-revered symphonies, the fifth (itself in C minor) and the ninth.

All the pieces in the programme, then, finished in the same C major (the Schubert, composed halfway between the premieres of Beethoven 5 and 9, probably shares influences with them rather than being directly influenced in its key scheme by the Fifth). We know Beethoven’s influence on Brahms, especially as symphonist, amounted to the distressing; he put off writing (or at least completing and releasing) a symphony until middle aged for fear of comparisons with the composer he was already often likened to, and then chose to overtly embrace the similarity in his first symphony, particularly echoing the Ninth, which had become venerated as a sort of untouchable pinnacle of symphony writing over the intervening decades.

In a sense, this veneration for Beethoven’s symphonies has never stopped, though the presence of great late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century symphonies in the repertoire has surely moderated it in the musical community as a whole. In that sense then, the musical world and the world of C minor and major inhabited by Brahms and Wagner is familiar and comprehensible to the modern musician. Schubert’s fourth symphony, I think, less so. Written as the Classical era was giving way to the Romantic, I am not sure its soundworld was thoroughly understood by everyone playing it on this occasion.

It is a mistake to simply label Schubert as a Romantic composer, while Beethoven is Classical, then transitional and then unique, and Hummel (say) is a Classical holdover. He was writing almost as early as Beethoven, and while he pushes modulation, length of movements and attitudes to emotion to decidedly nineteenth-century lengths, there are other aspects that require a classical approach. His orchestration and textures (down to the kind of string patterning used in accompaniments) are often resolutely eighteenth-century; his fifth symphony requires no larger forces than Mozart’s 40th (and therefore less than Mozart’s last). He also simply must be remembered to have been working mostly before even Beethoven’s transition to the new approach had been finalised; and he is much less given to pushing the boundaries of his players (or their instruments). Even in this C minor symphony, subtitled (though I would not like to say by whom) ‘Tragic’, there is no fff, no Presto and few of Beethoven’s characteristic sfz markings; and the third movement is (in character and structure as well as name) a Menuetto rather than a Scherzo. Schubert’s players had the expectation of having Classical music put in front of them – and I rather fancy that Schubert, less of the driven idiosyncrat than Beethoven, wrote with the expectation that his music would be played as if it was solidly within the tradition, and found other ways of producing a subversive (‘progressive’?) overall musical result.

The concert itself intrigued me almost as much as the programme. Fully-fledged concerts by workplace ensembles that I have been involved with have tended to be rather extramural affairs; they may be partly underwritten by the employer, and there is almost certain to be branding on the programme, but that is often it – external venue, no explicit representation of the firm at the event, logistics organised as it were by the ensemble rather than the company.

This concert took place at Southwark Cathedral – so external certainly. However, it was much more made a part of the corporate activity of JP Morgan than I had expected from other experiences. I hasten to clarify that I do not mean it paid into the bank’s coffers! indeed, entry was free, and there must have been significant expenditure from someone’s budget involved. However, the ushers were volunteers from the workforce, rather than the cathedral’s body of volunteers or whatever friends the orchestra committee could tempt into the job. And the music was preceded firstly by a welcome from the Dean which (I think on instruction, this being an unusual feature) laid out connections between the cathedral and both the US and the City financial sector; secondly, by a speech from the (I approximate the technical title) Senior Management Sponsor of J P Morgan Music (they apparently also have two choirs, have run chamber concerts and are about to launch a rock band … ); and thirdly by some words from the chair of the bank’s racial diversity resource group, which latter had apparently collaborated on putting on the concert. The management sponsor returned at the end to deliver a lengthy (because laudably inclusive) but heartfelt set of thank-yous. Pains were taken by both corporate speakers to link the putting on of this orchestral concert with corporate ideals, ethos, values and so on; which, whether actual reasons for the activity or applied post hoc to something people just wanted to do, was either way interesting. In terms of the wider company engagement (besides the stewards and the extra hours put in by the security staff managing out-of-hours rehearsals in company offices!), it maybe should not be difficult to get people into a free concert, but it requires a little more to fill a cathedral to standing room only, which this did; and the enthusiasm of the applause after a well-played, but long and emotionally demanding, programme of music plus several orations suggests an element of inside job to me. Apparently wealthy patronage of the arts is not dead, and I shall withhold my ironic self-employed amusement at being told (not personally of course, but sincerely) ‘if you’re not part of a corporate diversity resource group, I urge you to join one because it’s important for everyone’…

Four days’ Outcry

Somewhere roundabout the last day of Calamity Jane (see two posts ago), I managed to successfully apply for a project booking with Outcry Ensemble. This I consider a bit of a feather in my cap, since their players are mostly recent conservatoire graduates and the ensemble bills itself as a springboard for professional classical music careers.

I think the original spur to this was probably being booked to perform at Temple Church on the Thursday evening (we’re now up to 10 days ago; I had a very different performance the Thursday following!). However, the orchestra had decided to bolster this with performing the same programme the night before at St John’s Notting Hill, where they are resident. Rehearsals were the two evenings before that, so I went effectively straight into this from the Lincolnshire concert, with 48 hours from showing up to get performance-ready.

For this purpose the ensemble were a string orchestra, plus two trumpet soloists for a new commission of which more anon. Besides that, the programme was a Mozart divertimento, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, and the Tchaikovsky string serenade. The Mozart and Tchaik both contain beautiful and well-known music, and some dizzyingly fast passages that are not extremely difficult of themselves but I was still having some difficulty reading, let alone playing, clearly at the ambitious (though not inappropriate) tempi by Wednesday night.

Britten’s composition may be opus 10 and his first to attract significant attention, but it has the intricate challenges of both musicianship and string-specific technique that I have come to expect from the composer (playing Les Illuminations last year, for example): there are false harmonics, extremely rapid ‘quasi guitar’ chord strumming, some calls for playing on a specific string that leave the left hand a very long way round the instrument, and a fugue which divides even the second violins (where I was playing, to my surprise – there must have been an oversupply of violists) into a solo and two other divisi, with entries moving around all twelve key-centres and almost all rhythmic starting-points possible in a fast 12/8.

The new commission, by Ben Gaunt, who I recommend researching, was entitled The Trumpet Fists of St Nicholas and drew inspiration from the parody rituals of ‘boy bishop’ festivities (essentially a medieval, Catholic, specifically ecclesiastical variation on the lords of misrule / authority subverted form of limited mockery of power) and from some recorded instances of fisticuffs over heretical theology at early church councils! Significant use was made at key points – particularly the beginning and the end – of sounds that exist on the border between notes and white noise: drawing the bow across the bridge, drumming fingers on the body of the instrument, vocal ‘sss’ and ‘tktktk’ noises, and climactic calls for freely improvised bursts of notes within a given pitch range. The parodic element was partly expressed through one of the trumpets using 20s jazz style muted growls and wahs to attention-grabbing effect. I tend to be of the opinion, however, that the measure of a contemporary composer’s successful artistry is not their ability to produce ‘experimental’ effects, but their ability to integrate them with well-handled more traditional music; the principle that you should know the rules to break them consciously. And here, the counterpoint (sometimes literally) to the parodic and violent elements, representing perhaps the original ceremonies being subverted, was a vein of modal-sounding speech-rhythmic harmony that could easily have passed for a homophonic chant-based passage in a late Renaissance mass setting – a sign of a composer who has done his homework, so to speak.

Ironically, if I leave aside my own playing (which I flatter myself was much more controlled in the second concert), the Wednesday night may have been the better event. St John’s has a fairly uncluttered layout and only a moderately reverberant acoustic, which corresponded well to the clarity of a medium-sized (23 players) string orchestra and to the sense of community of a concert played in all black, with spoken introductions and most players standing (also, interestingly for a programme with no specialist early music intentions, with violins split right and left and lower instruments in between, rather than a clockwise scale of descending pitch – an arrangement which seems to be ever more popular). Said sense of connection was helped by a relatively small nave with an impressively numerous audience for a midweek evening (then again, maybe avoiding competition is the thing).

Temple Church is so called because it serves the Middle and Inner (I think) Temples, two of the Inns of Court which were historically the only places to train and qualify in English law, of one of which all English barristers are at least nominally still members, and which still house a great many law students and great legal minds. I had not ventured into the Inns of Court before (had not really realised they still existed, my knowledge of them being primarily from Victorian novels), and I would say my impression is that of an Oxford college writ large – an old-established Oxford college before almost all of them started charging for entry. There are the same imposing courtyards as main tool of layout, the same sense that one is in an institution and may be told to leave at any point, the same surprising degree of being cut off from the bustle just outside (the bustle more emphatic here, as I reached the Temples virtually directly from the Strand at late rush hour), the same iron-fenced gardens for the use of members only – and the same risk of finding oneself still inside after the public gates, even on what appear to be roads, have been locked and one in unsure how to find a useable exit!

As a performance venue, this church might have suited Tallis better than a piece referencing his sound-world, or than Mozart’s exceptionally lucid string writing (the divertimenti are probably so called to always enable them to straddle chamber and orchestral performance). The acoustic was much longer and richer – gorgeous for some things, but requiring a holding back of tempo in some places and just occasionally making it difficult to lock into a collective tempo. More to the point though, Temple Church is one of those places which seems to have become almost as much museum as place of worship (there were large interpretive panels on the wall beyond which the choral foundation do their work outside of services, narrating ‘Templars” involvement in twentieth-century geopolitics), and we players found ourselves distributed around a rather complicated altar area which had probably always had an ornamental rather than functional number of pillars, to which had been added display cases containing a pair of historic statues. The net result was that, from the back of the short second violin column, I could see most of my fellow players and the conductor, but almost none of the audience. They also had about double the size space to distribute themselves around compared to the previous night’s, and I fancy there were slightly fewer of them. The result was a peculiar feeling of almost playing in a different room, as if for a recording or broadcast. This may well have helped with calming nerves over tackling a difficult programme I had found stressful over the previous three days of the project, while conscious of being tired from my long run of performances; but it did lend something slightly dissatisfying to the performance for me, though I cannot fault the audience’s appreciation (except that they were not sure Ben Gaunt’s piece had finished till the conductor turned round, which I think shows less than the maximum possible engagement / attention – it has a perfectly clear if abrupt ending).

In any case, that performance brought me through to a whole two days off from music other than private lessons and practice – leading to the material for more blog posts.

Viola army

Not content with two consecutive musical theatre pit runs, I followed up Calamity Jane by travelling to the further reaches of Lincolnshire (massive vote of thanks to Andrew for driving!) for a Sunday evening choral society concert. I’m never sure why there aren’t more of these by the way – or if everyone wants an early night before work on Monday (those of you normal people that work a set 5 days a week!), start at 6:30 rather than 7:30 or have a Sunday afternoon concert, which I’ve come across a few amateur orchestras doing but hardly anyone else. It surely can’t really be anyone’s interests to concentrate all musical performances on two evenings in seven.

This was my third concert among the ranks of the Lincolnshire Chamber Orchestra. It’s an interesting outfit in its own right – a freelance professional orchestra operating more or less as they usually do, at professional pay scales but with no fixed seats or contracted permanent members; players are fixed for each performance, though mostly from pools of regulars with ever more porous edges if large forces are required, a particular date has competition or people just don’t want to play one particular engagement. However, it has no musical director and as far as I am aware has never put on a concert in its own name. Instead, it exists as an orchestra for hire, doing choral society concerts and big cathedral / church services as requested regionally – and despite costing probably double to triple what could be achieved by hiring good amateurs, instrumental teachers and so on directly at semi-pro rates, it has built up quite a thriving business at it.

The event this time was a concert with Louth Choral Society, and it was an interesting mixture. The forces had clearly largely been dictated by the major work, Fauré’s Requiem, which made up the second half. This was being played in the earlier (more or less original, though the work went through several incarnations under the composer’s direct eye) orchestration; which calls for choir, vocal soloists, organ, French horns, solo violin and sections of violas, cellos and double basses. This is the only concert I have played (and there are not likely to be many others, certainly unless they are swayed by the same repertoire) at which viola players outnumbered violins 8 to 1!

I was surprised to find that this version has only been available for general performance since something like the 1970s, when John Rutter edited it from manuscript for Oxford University Press (Fauré produced a more conventionally orchestrated version once the piece’s reputation became sufficient to justify publication) – surprised because it now bids fair to overtake the full orchestra arrangement as the standard performing version. Even with a fairly small body of strings (we were 8 violas, 4 cellos and 1 bass), the effect is of course a darkness of timbre relative to a normal string section that is appropriately sombre – and perhaps curious given in general Fauré’s Requiem is renowned as one filled with hope, approaching death far more with heaven in mind than judgment or damnation.

The musical language of Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine is often commented on as similar to the Requiem, despite its composition being decades earlier. It does not seem coincidental that John Rutter had arranged and OUP published the version we were using, for almost exactly the same forces as the Requiem! Both were also notable for involving navigating truly heroic quantities of flats – the ‘black notes’ tendency of some organists and pianists being here apparently illustrated by a tendency to about six (especially in the home key of the Cantique). This is of course most difficult to keep track of, not in passages in the home key, but in chromatic sections where there may be so many naturals, or sharps, and changes within a bar back to the flats of the key signature that you lose track of what should be flat when there is not an accidental in front of it …

There were two pieces in this programme derived from musical material better known in its original form. One constituted the only other contribution of the strings as a body (including myself) to the concert – an Agnus Dei for children’s choir and SATB constructed by Bizet out of the popular Intermezzo from his L’Arlesienne music, which had for this event been orchestrated for the forces otherwise available. The other was a particularly peculiar piece of work – an Ave Maria Massenet derived from the Meditation from his opera Thais (the only work of his almost anyone, including myself, can name). The original piece is of course a violin solo, originally with orchestra but very often played with a piano reduction as a recital piece. Here, the solo soprano took over parts of the original violin line, with organ and harp providing accompaniment; a solo violin sometimes provided accompanying material, and sometimes the original violin line while the soprano had rests or a new melody wrapped around the original. The overall music is more or less bar for bar identical to the Meditation. It is evidently a challenge to the singer (here a teenage girl from the church’s choral foundation, singing it admirably) and probably highly effective if approached in ignorance of the violin piece; unfortunately listening to it as someone who knows the Meditation well (I regularly play it when busking) all too easily tends to become a sort of musicological parlour game of tracing what has been changed or not!

One other chamber piece allowed the choir some rest (they needed it – I do not think I have seen a choral society put themselves through as extensive and demanding a programme!); Howells’ early setting of Psalm 137 (By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, etc), written while he was prevented by poor health from active service in WW1 and scored for baritone, violin, cello and organ. This was completely new to me, and remarkable. To say one exactly enjoys a work of profound pain and anger is perhaps both oversimplified and misdirected; but I found it an excellent piece, retaining enough accessibility to not end up in the dustbin of gratuitous experimentalism while using the expanded possibilities of modernist (in)harmony and (a)tonalism to push expressiveness beyond conventional limits. Well worth looking up.

The final piece of the first half was in many ways the key element of the concert, and one in strikingly positive contrast to the (all too frequently accurate) image of choral societies as ageing groups of singers with slowly declining voices, treading a gradually shrinking circuit of warhorse repertoire with constantly diminishing vigour. At some point previously, a long-serving contralto in the choir had died, leaving in her will a sum of money to commission a new piece for the choir (and by the sounds of it some substantial notes on the desired characteristics of the piece). The society had considered and approached a recent Cambridge organ scholar who had performed at the church with the commission – one Owain Park, whose website reveals him to be all of 25.

The result, with much consideration for the bequeather’s known personality, is a substantial set of six songs for choir and piano, texts selected by the composer, and two piano interludes, which the composer conducted as an almost continuous musical experience. I was struck by not just the assurance (which could, carpingly, be thought to mean arrogance – not here) but also the taste and judgment of Park’s writing, direction and indeed spoken introduction (something I think ‘classical’ concerts would still benefit from more of – especially if it reduces the audience’s temptation to read printed programme notes during the music!). Certainly this could only have been written in the postmodern era, if there is such a thing. The pianist had clearly worked closely with the composer, and had to navigate some technically demanding as well as witty and sensitive writing. The choir were put through work that is rarely required of large amateur choirs, notably singing against some very non-triadic chromatic clusters and entering from silence, as well as some solos from within the choir and extremes of dynamics – and coped admirably. Compositionally, there was a great deal of ‘non-traditional’ musical language – but it remained language, used coherently and systematically rather than at random, and with caution enough to be non-aggressive to the listener (at least a reasonably open-minded and musically wide-ranging one such as myself!), appropriately to a set of texts weighted towards nature poetry and a work seeming particularly shadowed by the remarkable poet Emily Dickinson, while being in no danger of the somewhat saccharine streak of sentimentalism that bedevils a significant amount of lesser contemporary choral music. All power to Owain Park’s elbow, say I – but next time, write something the violas can join in with!

Old timey

It’s not coincidence that I’ve yet to play in the pit for any of the really jazz-linked inter-war Broadway musicals (Gershwin, Hammerstein, Berlin etc.). If they have string parts at all, they are usually entirely dispensable or at least easily adequately covered by a keys 2 player; and in general (though perhaps not in the case of my recent pit work), the tendency is to am-dram societies being strapped for cash and finding ways of cutting their bands if possible, since they can’t usually get adequate players for free or much less than the current going rate.

So Calamity Jane is the nearest I’ve come to doing that style of show, and it was an interesting experience from a purely instrumental and ensemble point of view. The music mostly dates from the 1953 film, with the orchestration we were using for the stage version (almost certainly the original stage / pit adaptation or at least publication) copyrighted 1962. However, much of it felt like it could have dated from back in the 40s or earlier. The instrumentation was basically a medium-sized jazz band slightly expanded: two alto saxes (doubling clarinets) and one tenor (doubling flute); two trumpets, trombone; piano, string bass and drums (doubling various other percussion including timpani, xylophone and glockenspiel); and then a string section.

Initially, I was hired to replace someone who had pulled out of doing one of the three violin parts. However, the ‘viola’ in my email signature and CV gave the game away about doubling, and the MD and fixer then realised there was actually a full viola part in the set (this very unusual in more recent musicals certainly, and especially with violins A, B and C, unless as a double with the bottom violin part). The arrangement was arrived at that I would use both instruments, the MD selecting which part he felt was more important for a particular number as a whole. I was therefore spared the changes of instrument in a few bars’ rest so beloved of pit reed parts; but after experimenting with lots of photocopies, had to live with swapping between the two pads according to carefully prepared instructions as well as passing instruments and bows on and off my violin/viola stand (someday I must see if it’s possible to get a double stand, especially if I find myself doing more live doubling).

Some interesting things were revealed by this. Firstly, I am sure the MD’s judgment of musical importance was excellent; and he had me playing viola (which the original plan was not to bother with) for probably something like three-quarters of the show, only returning to the violin I was originally recruited for in relatively few numbers. Secondly, the single viola part actually contained implicit divisi, with numerous passages that could maybe be played as double stops but would certainly be inadvisable to try. The cellist (sat next to me) was faced with the same. This suggests, in the relative luxury of big professional theatres, big professional budgets before TV really put the squeeze on live entertainment, and conversely the absence of realistic pit miking, a string section of, I would think, at a minimum four violins (two on A, one each on B and C which are often in unison with each other but usually separate from A), two violas, two cellos and double bass (the swapping between double bass as lowest string part and as popular music bassline suggests a single player) – which then looks considerably more ‘orchestral’ than the usual present-day approach of one per part (or less!) and using amplification to fix the balance with the other instruments if necessary.

Musically, there is a lot of jazz-like music in Jane (not least, though far from only, in the several numbers which are performed within the action, and in which the 19th-century vaudeville for which the setting would naturally call seems to have been largely updated to 1920s jazz and hokum). However, the Wild West setting inevitably means a lot of country-ish music too (it isn’t really focused enough, and/or I’m not expert enough, to determine whether it’s supposed to ape old time, bluegrass or country & western – just lots of woodblock shuffle, the occasional rhythmic fiddle figure driving texture, and use of two or three chords!), which is a slightly curious mélange. Interestingly present: choice of keys clearly derived from the jazz tradition of picking based on Eb and Bb instruments, then favouring more ‘mellow’ flatter keys over ‘brighter’ sharp ones – over half the show must be in concert Eb or Ab. Interestingly absent: the frequent semitone rises in key (there was one I think!) and upward effectively unmeasured string runs to climaxes which I think of as hallmarks of American musical theatre writing, but had perhaps not yet become established by this date. Or were simply not wanted within this particular musical idiom (but I think probably the former).

The orchestration of the strings suggested a somewhat horn-centred approach, despite the size string section implied. There were several sections where the violas doubled the cellos an octave up (usually in prominent bass lines in the classical sense), seemingly for lack of a better idea; and a few where they doubled at pitch, which is a surprisingly arresting effect on first hearing, because the cello is inevitably therefore quite high in its range and the viola quite low, and so there is an impression of the cello playing above the viola even though this is not the case (it is a relatively common texture in chamber music of course). I’m not entirely sure the orchestrator put those passages in with an awareness of how the timbres would come out, however. Finally, several passages either had the same line moving from tenor sax to viola as horns and strings interchanged material, or in tuttis had them simply in unison. A certain amount of similarity between the instruments (certainly if the tenor is played a little less aggressively) had struck me before, but it’s interesting to find professional orchestration practice tending to bear it out. The concept of using string quintet (with two violas) in place of a normal big-band sax section (two altos, two tenors, bari) remains intriguing …

Back to back

As usual, a long silence on here doesn’t mean nothing to write about (a short silence might well though), it means no time to write. Besides ongoing band practices, personal study and publishing work, the particular point at issue here has been a pit band run, followed by another pit band run, followed by a choral society concert, followed by a string orchestra project – which meant that I had a band call on the 8th of April, then a day off, then 17 days straight of at least one rehearsal or performance per day, finishing on Thursday 27th (two days ago). It’s taken me this long to get to starting to blog about it …

First up was My Fair Lady, in Reading. I was playing violin B – don’t ask me why pit violin parts are lettered rather than numbered (especially when the reed parts are generally numbered) but it’s common; as is multiple violin parts but no viola (generally – more to come on that).

This seems to be a season of older musicals being put on. I’ve already done Oliver! this year, went from My Fair Lady to Calamity Jane, and have spoken to several colleagues who have noticed the same thing: pre-rock musicals with jazz or even older musical stylings, piano parts instead of patched keys and double bass instead of doubling or bass guitar throughout. My Fair Lady is also English, which given its date and setting means an even more distinctive musical palette compared to the modern West End / Broadway sound. No saxes here – three reed parts supplying flute, multiple clarinets and bass clarinet; certainly more of a concert orchestra scoring than a big band plus one, even in the reduced orchestration we were using. Not quite as much Cockney oompah material as Oliver (much to my relief), and what there is arguably better done, certainly more sophisticated. More of a somewhat Sullivan-esque tendency to musical pastiche as well – a Spanish jota, gavotte, Viennese waltz and Victorian chorale feature, as do glances at G&S patter delivery.

However, there is another side to these older musicals which became increasingly glaring to me as these two weeks progressed. They’re really politically incorrect.

I don’t just mean slightly. As was pointed out to me discussing this with some pit colleagues, one of the most gorgeous songs in Oliver – ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ – is about domestic abuse and an almost Stockholm syndrome-like relationship of the abused to the abuser. My Fair Lady contains some appallingly sexist statements from the leading man, who, while somewhat held up to mockery, certainly does not significantly revoke his opinions or suffer poetic punishment. As to Calamity Jane, it has all the problems one would expect from a 60s cultural artefact set in the Wild West – sexist, monumentally gender-normative, transphobic and racist to the point of genocidal as far as the indigenous population of the Americas is concerned.

None of this seems to bother the light operatic societies and so on who choose to revive these shows. Apparently nostalgia (the decision-makers are usually at least into middle age) and / or the it being just a bit of fun stops enough cast and audience cringing. Admittedly, better that than the instances I’ve heard of (in England of course) of the black characters in Hairspray (whose race is integral to the plot and therefore cannot be altered by the director) being played in blackface for lack of suitable cast, but still …

Decisions on amateur productions are, of course, made a long time in advance (Epsom Light Opera Company had been rehearsing Calamity Jane since November). I wonder if #metoo and the Weinstein earthquake in general will lead to repertoire choices (say) a year hence which examine plot and text more critically? Or am I comparing two spheres which are simply too far apart to influence each other?

Busker solidarity

Big shout out to fellow London National Rail busker (and a newbie at that) Esther Turner! While waiting for me to finish my booked stint in a draughty Liverpool Street entrance hall (and a long wait she had of it too), she bought me a coffee to warm my hands up – which may have been the only thing that kept my fingers able to negotiate Irish reels and jigs at something like authentic speed to the end of 2 hours; at the time valued much more highly than any cash donation (not that I expect money from fellow buskers anyway, that would seem kind of going round in circles … ). I would say I’d failed to allow for just how cold it was that morning, but I know from experience I can’t play in tune with even fingerless gloves on my left (fingering) hand anyway.

Hmm, probably should have moved my violin case out of shot before taking this photo for her promo / social media channels …

So thanks again Esther, welcome to the station busking circuit and good luck with everything (including new single releases!).

Early-ish

Saturday 24th was a fairly rare orchestral violin outing for me.

Curiously, given the major strand of my art music violin playing lately has been with La Folie, this was also with a largely modern-instrument chamber orchestra specialising in period performance, namely Ashford Baroque Ensemble. I was balancing up the numbers in their second violin section for a concert accompanying Spelthorne Choral  Society.

A great many choral society concerts are built around Romantic warhorses (like Mendelssohn’s perennially popular Elijah, which I will be playing viola in for the third time with as many choirs / orchestras in June); these demand large orchestral forces even while many choirs find their numbers dwindling or, for similar reasons, their sheer volume declining as the average age rises. In contrast, the repertoire for this outing allowed us the orchestra to take to the stage with very small numbers, thankfully removing the frequent necessity to artificially stifle the orchestral volume even in choral tutti.

Emmanuele d’Astorga is, it appears, a highly obscure figure. I particularly like the fact that he disappears out of the historical record and the date of his death is estimated from when he is last heard of! Musicologists apparently esteem his secular vocal  chamber music highly, but the only work of his to be in the regular performance repertoire is the Stabat Mater we were performing. Its style is solidly that of the late Baroque (probably a little old-fashioned when it was written), with the deliberate backward glances common to most church music from the seventeenth through to the nineteenth centuries – the approach would be familiar to anyone who knows the Vivaldi Gloria, though it is of course a more muted work given the more funereal text involved. Chorus roughly alternate movements with various combinations of a quartet of soloists (it was a pleasure to have an excellent counter-tenor singing the alto part; with all due respect to female contraltos, the composer would definitely have had male alto in mind), supported only by strings (we had 11 of them) and continuo (supplied by (electronic) chamber organ). One movement is for solo voice and continuo only; there are a couple of tutti fugues; and static-pitch intoning is referenced in a couple of passages in which the choir make their way through text in rhythmic unison on a single chord.

This piece seems to be undergoing one of those waves of popularity that constitute a peculiar form of (particularly amateur) classical music fashion, and particularly given the relative smallness of the Baroque choral repertoire as represented by most choirs, it is definitely well-deserved. There are charming sparkling solo passages; some yearning suspensions amid much deft use of minor tonality; and the contrapuntal material is satisfying.

Haydn’s ‘Nelson’ Mass requires much less introduction. It is, of course, technically (and in terms of musical style, very definitely) too late for a soi-disant Baroque ensemble. However, this makes a welcome change from Classical (and even Baroque) repertoire being performed in the late-Romantic manner which is still the received mainstream performance style, particularly for string players! The only growth of the orchestra here from the d’Astorga was the addition of trumpets and timpani – interestingly and almost certainly authentically, keyboard continuo was retained.

The sheer capital investment required (unless and until I discover a mythical personage willing to loan an instrument for virtually free) continues to effectively debar me from period-instrument work and therefore a lot of contact with high-level early music specialists. However, it was gratifying to find, playing with a specialist ensemble, that most of my instincts regarding bowing in particular in the d’Astorga aligned with those of the regular members; and my ideas about how to handle an urtext edition in performance! (The particular pitfall here is the ‘lazy composer’: manuscript has various phrasing / performance marks only in the first instance of some material, as the composer expected the typesetter and/or performer to then apply them analogously to repetitions and variations; this seems fairly evident but I have been in rehearsals where it was taken as justification for interpreting the first instance differently to the rest!)

I’m unsure quite when I’ll be coming back to orchestral early music. However, next month (April) sees me occupying two musical theatre pits (using violin in both, plus viola in one), and renewing my connection with Lincolnshire Chamber Orchestra on viola for a largely Romantic programme. Plus I’m trying to get back to work on some really representative classical viola promo material. As ever, watch this space!

In theatre

Last Friday (23 March), Kindred Spirit took a gamble.

Or rather, I should really say the gamble was taken several weeks earlier, when we took a booking at the theatre space in Twickenham’s still quite new Exchange arts / education / community space. It was the first time they had booked a local live band; there was no promoter as such and we were doing it as the only act on the bill, so we knew it was largely down to us to bring a crowd; it is a seated venue as well as being only a few months old and so perhaps not the natural setting for a rock band, certainly not somewhere anyone will wander to by chance.

I think it’s safe to say the gamble paid off. Thanks largely to Elaine and family’s sterling efforts online, in person and through the older-fashioned method of posting something like 1500 flyers through letterboxes (though it should be noted I actually had friends at this gig – a rare high point! Thanks Aga and fiancé for making the trek out to Twickenham), we had enough of a crowd to make the 300 ranked seats feel adequately filled, to comfortably exceed the tipping point from what we had asked the venue to underwrite as a fee to where splitting the ticket take made us both more money anyway, and for venue staff to say it was the best-attended show they’d yet had.

It was an audience with a lot of friends in the band too, of course. This meant an attentive response and an appreciative one, even if inevitable seated audiences are a little less rock-n-roll than ones stood on the floor and so at liberty to dance whenever they feel so inclined. As you can see above, we made use of the opportunity to have some fairly spectacular projected backdrops, particularly this one for (of course) ‘Dragonfire’:

And just because the audience were sat down and I couldn’t jump off the stage (it’s a studio theatre-type layout with the audience ranked upwards back from a level-fronted stage space) didn’t mean I was compromising the energy and irreverence now expected to surface during my rock band performances; I’m pretty sure this is from either ‘The Hunger’ in the first half or ‘Feed the Fire’ in the second:

Not only did this gig constitute, as mentioned above, a rare instance of a music colleague / friend showing up to see me doing something different from where she (on this occasion) first met me – and saying some very gratifying things about my performance and the band’s work as a whole! – it also produced my nearest experience yet to being famous, when on Sunday afternoon I was walking pretty much past the venue (it’s between home and the centre of Twickenham!) and was congratulated on the gig by a passing woman I completely did not recognise (in fairness, theatre lights in our eyes meant we couldn’t really see anything of the crowd beyond the front row … ). I guess the next step is intrusive photography and viral rumours about my personal life!