London Viola Player, Violinist & Arranger For Hire

Performance consequences

Here’s a fun group of examples as to how being in constant networking / marketing mode, as most professional musicians seem to be, can occasionally work out with unexpected career progress. For the flipside – the low rate of return meaning it’s necessary to keep on at that relentless drive – I’ll just state that the last time I bought business cards, I got 500. And that I have a spreadsheet of musicians’ contact details, but have lately run out of time to keep adding the details of people I meet / correspond with … Anyway, back to the story:

8th March: Iain Cooper, director in a family interior design firm, sees me busking in Victoria station. He takes my contact details and gets in touch to discuss music for promotional purposes; is sufficiently impressed with what he’s heard of me and what I put forward as a business proposition that he hires me to put together a trio and play upbeat, instrumental, acoustic music out on the (semi-pedestrianised) street for a total of 12 hours over 3 days during the Clerkenwell Design Week event, to ‘draw people in’ to his company’s exhibition / sales room.

22nd April: We’re doing the Clerkenwell job when one of my business cards is picked up by passer-by Francesco Asaro. He emails later that day to say he was impressed by my playing and improvising, and ask if I would be interested in playing with his gypsy swing band – busking or perhaps later gigging.

9th June: It took a while to get our diaries to synchronise, but I finally go out for a busking session with Caravan Circus. It turns out I don’t know much of their repertoire, but can fudge a lot of it with knowing the key, listening, lead guitar taking the head melodies if the numbers aren’t vocal, and the good old trick of looking like I meant to do everything I did. Anyway it seems a viable start.

21st June: after two rehearsals, and a fair bit of poring over lead sheets trying to memorise chord progressions and some elements of melodies to a 20-song set list, I play my first gig as a band member! A corporate social for the risk department at French bank BNP Paribas (no connection to the former British Nasty Party). It goes down very well and, while I know which bits I was most fudging, the audience members I speak to seem genuinely surprised that I’m a recent and little-rehearsed addition to the group.

Next chapter still to take place …

Classical music – minus the rules

On Monday 4 June, I played the upstairs room at the Lexington in Islington. It was an unusual pub function room gig for many reasons, and for once being on a Monday night was the least of them.

I was playing with ambient / chamber fusion project Dream Logic, the live expression of composer / pianist / guitarist Adam Fulford. They’re a fairly unusual act (featuring live string quartet – miked and at some points fed through effects processing – Ableton Live sample / loop triggering, a fairly terrifying tech setup, and live guitar and keys work from Adam), especially for what I believe is mostly a rock (alternative in the broadest sense of the word) venue. We played a good set, and the experience (live gig no. 2!) was a significant step up from our first live outing, not least in proving that his concept (both music and instrumentation – and indeed the decision to score everything, even if with cues, click tracks and aleatory sections in several places, and hire more-or-less classical players) works better at lower volumes both onstage and out front, where it can be engaged with as quasi-acoustically listenable rather than ‘immersively’ all-consuming as had been the case first time round.

However, I want to do one of those posts where I mostly talk about something other than what I was actually involved with.

This night was part of a project – a series, I suppose – by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, called ‘the Night Shift’. To those within the classical-orchestral sphere, OAE are known as one of the stalwarts of the historically-informed performance approach – including not only researching how people played in 1650, 1750 or indeed 1850 (still markedly different to today’s defaults, which probably crystallised around 1920), but how many of them there would have been, and using reproductions (occasionally restored originals!) of the instruments they would have had. The Night Shift seems to often involve chamber groups drawn from the orchestra’s ranks, performing under the same brand. And it is the strapline of the series – classical music, minus the rules – that I have stolen for the title of this post.

After Dream Logic’s support slot, the repertoire was fairly typical of the more progressive wing of professional classical music at present. A string quintet and a quartet movement by Felix Mendelssohn – and a quartet movement by his sister Fanny, now being discovered as another creative woman close to a household-name composer but discouraged by gender norms from serious musical ambition (in this she joins Clara Schumann, wife of Robert, and ‘Nannerl’ Mozart, sister of Wolfgang Gottlieb; the same movement is of course bringing to long-deserved greater attention many female composers who did not happen to be immediate family of male ones!).

Musically, the approach was uncompromisingly OAE. Not only was this 19th-century chamber music performed without concession to the setting, it was done so on instruments set up as their cousins were before the increases in volume and brilliance of ever higher tension and ever more ambitious engineering and technique through following decades; and on gut strings. These come up in discussion of period-instrument string playing a lot (those readers to whom this is teaching my late grandmothers to suck eggs, forgive me); almost all mainstream classical players use nylon-core strings with a metal binding today, but these did not come into use until well into the 20th century. Before then it had been gut for centuries, and they have somewhat less volume but particularly less ‘edge’ (and, less to the point for the listener, are maddeningly more difficult to keep in tune!). The different sound of Bach, and indeed Mozart a couple of generations later, played on gut-strung replica instruments is something that has become fairly generally familiar to listeners with any interest in what might soon stop being called ‘early music’. But I think this was the first time I had heard gut strings on Romantic chamber music, or on Romantic music live (as opposed to radio / TV) at all. It is remarkable how much more intimate and privately sociable – rather than publicly performative – it makes a period of music that I generally associate with seeking out extremes and ever-greater massiveness of sound: bigger orchestras, longer symphonies, louder pianos, more virtuosic playing.

So far, so very musical, very OAE, but quite within ‘the rules’. So how serious is the ‘minus the rules’ strapline, besides moving the performance into a pub (or various other non-concert hall locations, it appears from the website)? I have to admit my heart sank a little when I saw the OAE players turning up in all black. Granted, it is better than black tie (the formal dress of the interwar years, the last time audiences as well as performers wore formal dress to professional classical concerts), and definitely better than the still-common pro orchestra uniform of white tie (the formal dress of roughly 1900-1920, when most of our other classical concert norms crystallised); but the modern uniform of service staff from session musicians to stage hands to canapé waitresses still doesn’t quite say unwinding to me.

But I was to be pleasantly surprised. Once the venue had filled up (and it did – though, rather like many a rock night, not properly till after the support act), the audience demographic certainly included a significant fraction of the usual middle-aged and upwards, middle-class and upwards classical music listener-base, but was more heavily slanted towards under 35s, still mostly with money but probably making it themselves, more likely to buy craft beer between sets than small glasses of wine. And the performance was genuinely not what you would get at most straight-up chamber music recitals.

Three of the players (seemingly whoever had least to do in the changeover, as they were revolving parts, seating and instruments (!) to some extent) took it in turns to introduce pieces – amusingly enough, the only thing for which the OAE contingent used mikes or the PA system. Arguably the length of some of their comments illustrated that classical musicians are generally not used to doing this (though I have heard some conductors do it in wholly ‘serious’ contexts, and generally very well) – but there was no mistaking the commitment to the music as well as the project of making it immediate, meaningful and un-distanced for a 21st-century London audience, even in the case of the violinist who got accidentally sidetracked into describing an awkward cinema date with a cellist he was playing Mendelssohn quartets with while at university …

I do need to turn aside here to query why spoken introductions are seen as a dispensible part, if a part at all, of the classical musician skill set. The arguments that not everybody is confident speaking in public, and that the musicians are there to perform the music not explain or comment on it, seem reasonable – in isolation. But every diploma, university or conservatoire assessed recital I have come across has awarded some marks based on the production of a written programme. In other words, musicians have to write about the music, but not necessarily talk about it (and they are not generally allowed to substitute talking for writing; indeed, my ATCL recital did not even allow adding talking to writing). Speaking in public is a skill, learnable and indeed teachable, especially for a professional performer (!). Finally, as both a performer and a fellow audience member, I would rather live audiences sat through some introductory remarks and then watched the stage, rather than burying their heads and making rustling noises in a paper programme, however useful one may be.

Back to the Night Shift. One of the introductions (and they all clearly had not been ‘vetted’, from some of the musicians’ reactions to each other!) did eventually comment ‘and feel free to – do anything!’; by that point, it was clear the usual classical rules were not going to be followed. People did arrive (though I didn’t notice any leaving) during music, and some ordered drinks, albeit generally in a whisper (the mere fact of the bar being open in the same room throughout constitutes a rule broken I suppose); applause was general after every movement.

There is a separate, and much more niche, post to be written about how most of this is reverting to the older (absence of) rules rather than doing anything completely new. The point is more that this became, even for me a fairly seasoned classical concert-goer, an effective way of making the music more immediate, more meaningful, more significant. Discovery: however ‘finely’ one may be supposed to appreciate art music, it does not lose significance from being taken away from theatre-style seating, hushed silence, onstage behaviour minimising the performers’ humanity and intervening noise withheld until the end of what the composer presented as a unit. It may even grow stronger for the removal of those apparent props.

In sum, I approve and commend OAE for the Night Shift. And not only would I recommend going to a Night Shift performance if you have the chance, I recommend to organisers and promoters considering putting ‘classical’ music into informal spaces and unritualised behaviours where people usually find and seek other kinds of music. It might just work out better for everyone than you think.

Life on the road

For once my bandmates at The Filthy Spectacula spare me writing up, and you reading my purple prose upon, this last weekend’s serving of gigs (I’ve skipped over our headline appearance at Coventry’s inaugural steampunk convivial, sorry). I’ll let Lord Harold tell it his way instead … read on!

Now showing

A little while back I wrote about recording some viola music in the impressively resonant acoustic of All Hallows’ Church, Twickenham. At that point, for various reasons, my excursion into the under-occupied territory of swing viola was the only product ready to be opened up to the public.

However, it’s now time to present the real purpose of the session: a complementary pair of art music pieces, essentially an online portfolio for my current point of arrival in that sphere. First up, a complete solo; and while I’m all for clarity of sound in Baroque music, I think that acoustic really lends extra fullness and presence to a sound that, particularly playing an octave above where the music was originally written, could sound a little lonely.

You can watch it too if you like, though fans of my storming round the stage (and audience) rock solos may be disappointed that I’m being a fairly restrained classical player in this instance:

The real showpiece though (both for a handful of really virtuosic passages, and for pushing the intensity of expression that is probably my single greatest strength in ‘classical’ music) is this fairly obscure Romantic character showpiece. Big thanks to Connor Fogel for playing piano (and contributing at least 50% of the flamboyance and sartorial elegance, which is rare for my pianists!), and to Clive Turner for recording, filming and editing.

These are also moving into the demos linked from my Playing page, until something else moves the game on again …

Enjoy and let me know what you think!

Back in the game

Saturday 12 May lunchtime saw Kindred Spirit playing at Richmond May Fair. It was the first full band outing since the 23rd of March, which is a while. I was slightly rusty on a couple of arrangements, but we made a good sound and were able to preview I think 4 tracks of the upcoming album (second half of which is being worked up towards recording at present).

However, it was a much more notable return to form that evening for The Filthy Spectacula. Our set at Maui Waui’s Pirate Ball (yes really!) was our first since late January, and the first ever with new bass monster Bullring Bryce (aka Warwick Preece). It was a good audience and a rocking gig – but I think I’ve forgotten how to pace myself for a 1-hour Filthy set, and was exhausted, sweaty and shaking by the end!

And to complete the set, on Thursday 17th I did my first busking set in a little while too. That was also a bit more tiring than I remembered (I think my right arm had got used to not playing long stretches of Irish fast fiddle tunes), and I had a couple of unexpected memory blanks, but it was generally a good start back to a routine I want to keep up.

So getting into the swing – gigs with both bands, festivals, summer events, busking. Also some other things which I will update you with in future posts! Hope to see you on the neverending tour …

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!