London Violinist, Viola Player & Arranger For Hire

Repetition

La Folie recently did one concert in north-east London, followed by another just under a fortnight later in Chichester. The group pragmatically took advantage of the geographical separation (and therefore small chance of overlap in prospective audience) and chronological proximity to play almost the same programme twice, with very similar personnel (an oboe concerto was added for the second concert, along with its soloist, removing a violin sonata and one of a group of harpsichord solos; we changed over cello and double bass but no other players). The result (though there were other factors in this too) was a second concert that ranked high among that group’s performances, practically and musically, with ever-better intuition between players and tightness of accuracy.

Repeating programmes, or even works, in any close succession (excluding seasonal and pops concerts) is still rare enough in the classical world to be worthy of comment. This in contrast to many gigging bands that may have a performance-ready repertoire not much bigger than their longest set list. Classical critics in particular rarely stop asking why, and it’s a worthwhile point.

Partly, most orchestras are fairly static most of the year – they perhaps play at a home venue except for a summer tour, where they may well repeat much more material. If you’re essentially drawing from the same area’s audience, then arguably you have to have enough audience to fill your venue twice to bother playing the same programme twice. Most groups that repeat similar set lists (particularly originals acts) are a lot more mobile, so are effectively always as if on tour. Indeed, many originals promoters forbid playing in the same area within a fortnight or even a month of their booking, to avoid audiences seeing essentially the same show somewhere else.

But people do come back to see rock bands and others do very similar shows multiple times, maybe not within weeks but certainly within months, a few times a year – more often than most orchestras repeat the same concerto or symphony. Perhaps because, at grassroots level, non-classical music is usually a lot cheaper and so the investment is less. Perhaps because you can generally drink, dance and socialise more prolifically at a gig than a concert or recital and so your night can be good even with somewhat predictable music so long as you like it. Perhaps just because most people are less attentively picky about their rock, singer-songwriter or even jazz than their symphony orchestra repertoire.

But it is a shame that, at the middle range of performance where concerts are fairly frequent and rehearsals in effect paid, this means a lot of minimally prepared music. Sure, no problem for amateur orchestras who rehearse weekly for eight weeks or so for each concert – once you’ve spent that long with a piece you ought to be allowed five years off from it, and there will probably be several players still around in five years, or ten, who would rather do something new. But the number of concerts I have played on one rehearsal is staggering, and I can’t help but feel that a more creative approach, mixing and matching new and previously performed repertoire, might give on average a more thoroughly musical experience to the audience. Would it be worth travelling more (fairly short distances, but further than audiences are likely to venture) in order to play similar programmes to different listeners? Admittedly travel expenses for even a small orchestra are enough to give second thoughts. And we seem to live in a conservative world for the arts, where it is sadly less likely that people will turn out for a visiting group in order to hear something different, than it is that they will stay away because the new bunch are an unknown quantity. And all this only works if what is billed as the same ensemble actually chiefly contains the same players. Somewhere or other there in my head there is a grand scheme emerging from this for carefully vetted orchestra exchanges, with transport costs reduced by equipment sharing (not most instruments of course, but percussion, perhaps even harp if needed, and all other gear like music stands), a maintained brand reputation by only swapping with orchestras of similar standard, and concerts in towns a bearable journey from each other, allowing loyalty to something other than the specific orchestra and a slower rotation of more thoroughly known music. But it would require massive buy-in from organisations, effectively a step-change from how classical music runs at the moment.

In the mean time, here’s to the occasions that make it artistically and commercially feasible to repeat classical programmes, for the sake of us that get to perform or hear things better, clearer and with more thorough understanding that way. And to the gigging bands that change things up and give their members (and their most loyal followers) a varied time of it!

In session

Ironically, after a couple of years of insisting that ‘session musician’ is an outdated description of what I do because the money is all in live these days, I’ve just finished a busy period of studio recordings of one kind or another.

La Folie have now finished tracking for our début album (editing, mixing, mastering and so on will take a lot longer; February is the hoped-for release date). The repertoire, all English, ranges from viol consort pieces by Munday and Weelkes, through Playford and of course a substantial dose of orchestral Purcell, up to Handel trumpet marches and an Arne trio sonata. Three days’ work saw the strings’ pieces completed, with I believe some harpsichord solos and an oboe sonata to finish off afterwards.

In totally different mode, I was in purpose-built recording studios (rather than chilly chapels in autumn!) for two sets of overdubs on studio-only tracks. Producer Tom Pugh’s upcoming ‘Henry’s Tune’ was inspired by creating something in a modal E flat minor, so that his toddler son (Henry) could bash on the black keys of a keyboard and solo convincingly over the top! I hasten to add that the release version doesn’t contain any of Henry’s contributions, which I think are kept to private live performances. We chatted about the track at a fairly early stage, and Tom decided to get me on board to write and record some acoustic string lines, and open up some sonic and chronological space in the track for them to weave in, sometimes at the foreground, sometimes deeper in the texture. Never one to back away from expansive arrangements (and by this point quite familiar with layering many more tracks than musicians in a studio context), I ended up using as many as 5 different parts (4 violins + viola) in one section; which I then double-tracked; with the engineer using a close and a distance mike to give Tom mixing options on a more or less ‘live’ acoustic sound. Yes, that comes to 20 tracks of me. I swear I’m not an egotist. Well, no more so than is normal among performers. Another section involved two improvised solo lines – which I did not double-track, you’ll be relieved to hear. The track is still in post-production so I’ll keep you posted, but some of Tom’s other music can be found on Soundcloud under the name #rosputin.

In a rather different vein, another studio overdub for David Cole (an assignment on his film & TV music course) was a straight single-line overdub which came fully scored (as opposed to Henry’s Tune where I scribbled down various ideas and edited / revised / added to them on the same piece of manuscript paper with pencil and rubber over an email and Dropbox collaboration process with Tom, leaving a set of instructions comprehensible only to me). This can’t be allowed out publicly yet as it has to be assessed, but I’ll keep you posted on that too as it was a well-constructed piece of music (and a well-written part for violin, which isn’t always the case!) and a pleasure to work with someone both relaxed, appreciative and professional in their attitude to musicians.

Two Sundays in November, amid all of this, saw me at a very well-equipped private girls’ school in Dulwich, working in a group of 8 or 9 instrumentalists (cello, flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, my violin, some percussion overdubs) to accompany an amateur company’s recording of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Utopia Limited – entire. You can imagine this was a pressured schedule, even with a cast and conductor that had staged the whole thing. More so as we players were more or less feeling our way through a selection of parts from the original orchestration, with piano filling in the gaps, and were sight-reading as we went (one run-through at most before going for a take!). Luckily for me, a lot of the particularly high and squiggly passages in Sullivan’s orchestration are doubled at pitch between first violin and flute; musical considerations meant I got to take the second violin, usually the same material an octave lower, where that was the case. As I’ve commented before, my classical sympathies at least are increasingly with the viola and its lower tessitura! Still I handled this a lot better than the last time I was faced with Sullivan, which is pleasing. Apparently even my violin playing is improving significantly from density of professional playing.

Finally, another rather chilly church saw me joining (and de facto leading, though it’s a somewhat meaningless distinction among 3 players) the viola section of the London Contemporary Chamber Orchestra a week ago today. This group’s remit is to work entirely with new music, rehearsing and workshopping to feed back to composers on music produced in response to their suggested themes or which happens to fit them, performing some of it and recording some (which may or may not overlap), with opportunity frequently made use of to revise compositions in between. We had five fairly short and remarkably diverse items to cover in a day’s rehearsal and recording – pulling no punches on timing then. Three of the composers were present (one playing in the percussion section) to guide a very definitely chamber orchestra – single winds (7 in total), two percussionists taking up about half the available space between the instruments they were required to navigate, and a body of a dozen strings – and their conductor on their numbers. The ‘in-house’ composition, so to speak, was based on a tricolour – red, yellow, blue – with the sections headed but running continuously, and incorporating the only aleatory section of my part. The brass players were also required to double on additional percussion when not playing trumpet, horn and trombone respectively! A very dense piece entitled Ophiuchus, composer absent, was apparently based around a detailed programme of life emerging from a swamp on a newly-discovered planet, and featured divided strings creating grinding pianissimo dissonances (a sonic swamp!) under wind solos, before emerging to much sharper rhythm and harmony at double speed. Tempo modulation also featured in Terpsichore awakens, together with a dance-like rhythmicness to be expected from the title and playful use of cross-rhythms (capable of being very misleading when semiquavers in 9/8 are available as a viable melodic unit!). My old county youth orchestra friend Emily Dickinson’s Quite at Leisure; or, Mr Bennett’s Library was certainly the most postmodern of the set, showing an ability to master the English cowpat sound, somewhere between Elgar and Vaughan Williams, as expected in Austen screen adaptation soundtracks – and subvert it, whether with frantic interruptions suggestive of the Bennett females’ tangled emotional lives, or with busy percussion parts and buried quickly-resolving dissonances within the more straightforward material that might point to Austen’s self-awareness as a writer, her sarcastic wit or Mr Bennett’s refusal to live in the world of a romantic novel. Mutation of Credo is perhaps the piece I should most like to have explained in detail; part of a series of compositions expanding and reworking the movements of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli into orchestral pieces. Whatever exactly the processes involved in this ‘mutation’, the result could only have been written within the last few decades and I am intrigued to know how one relates to the other.

After that lot, recording takes a break for now, though both Kindred Spirit and The Filthy Spectacula intend to record in 2018. Kindred Spirit get to round off 2017, with a free full band gig tonight at the Belle Vue in High Wycombe, and a duo gig spanning the old and new years at Basingstoke Irish Club. Keep an eye out for next year’s public outings!

Under the baton

Last Sunday I spent most of the day playing for a conducting workshop run by Peter Fender (a last minute dep job for a sometime La Folie colleague – confusingly, I was replacing him here on viola, which is not an instrument either of us plays in the consort!).

(An aside: yes, I have nearly caught up to writing current blog posts. I’m skipping over a couple of band gigs, and a couple of engagements which should lead to forthcoming media releases and/or about which I have signed non-disclosure agreements … )

Regular readers will know I’m not new to playing for conducting workshops, and rather enjoyed my last experience of it (perhaps more than most people enjoyed my mammoth blog post on the subject). This one, too, was very interesting – though at something like 6 hours’ actual playing, decidedly tiring. The more so as the repertoire for the day was Beethoven’s second symphony.

Now the ‘lesser’ Beethoven symphonies – numbers 1, 2, 4 and 8 – form a curious group. They’re often described as more classical than the ground-breaking 3, 5, 7 and 9 and programmatic 6 (Pastoral) – though a programmatic symphony was not new when Beethoven wrote the latter, its predecessors are simply generally (and understandably!) not played; it is much more distinctive for being a viable, well-written and thoroughly structured symphony than for being programmatic as such. This is true as far as orchestration is concerned, and to some extent duration; but not otherwise. The structural extensions, wild dynamic contrasts, extended development and modulation considered characteristically Beethovian are just as present. Even the instrumentation needs to be seen in context. The symphony we were playing calls for strings (with cellos and basses sharing a part), pairs of the usual four woodwinds, pairs of horns and trumpets, and timpani. Now that is, yes, a smaller orchestra than the famous Beethoven symphonies, with their additions of extra horns, piccolo, trombones, and singers. But conversely it is more or less the maximum standard orchestra of the time – trumpets and timpani were optional extras, normally used only in particularly bombastic pieces, and the clarinet had only just established itself as a standard orchestral instrument. A single flute instead of a pair was still not unusual. So a tutti fortissimo for those forces was not a restrained gesture for Beethoven at the time – it was already, to the ears listening to it, tumultuous (and in a rather high-ceiling and hard-surfaced church hall, it sounded it on Sunday. My desk partner had earplugs in the whole time we were playing, despite a string section appropriate to the era bringing the total number of players to just 30). It was turning the volume to 10, if the Eroica’s third horn and the Fifth’s trombones and piccolo were ways of turning it up to 11.

No chance of sitting back and taking things easy then – this is no Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Especially as one of Beethoven’s distinctive (surely deliberately disruptive) devices in this symphony is melodic material in octaves in the violas, celli and basses, with the violins accompanying (a three-part texture with violas doubling celli is not unusual in Classical orchestration; tune in the bottom of it is). One way to keep your violists awake, and given the low status of the instrument at the time a rather risky choice.

If the ‘even numbered symphonies’ (scare quotes because this category never includes no. 6!) are often hived off from the rest of Beethoven’s symphonic output, there was evidence enough in the specifics the half-dozen learner conductors were working through of, conversely, the tendency (not necessarily wrong, but surely noteworthy) to treat Beethoven as unique. What is the meaning of a Beethoven fortissimo? Sforzando? Fortepiano? My partner recounted an experience of being told a Beethoven forte is something quite unique (it sounded more like a fortissimo to me from the description, but perhaps I missed something). What does Larghetto mean as the speed of a movement that could easily become very long and boring (responses to this question varied between conductors by around 50%, which is significantly unusual)? There is a balance of (at least) three things here – composer’s personal artistic outlook (which may perhaps be fairly unwavering), composer’s development or at least change over time, understanding of terminology of the time (no sane composer uses a term to mean one thing when every player around them will reliably interpret it as something else). If there is a fourth, it raises that oft-feared spectre of ‘period performance’ – the fourth aspect being what filters modern players and audiences may apply by default that need compensating for when dealing with anything from a different cultural context to when our ‘classical’ norms were set. And there is a good argument that they were set around Mahler’s time – the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries. In which case almost everything in the repertoire requires ‘historically informed performance’.

All of this sits on my mind as I continue to study a Bach cello suite on viola (consulting with a Royal Academy professor next week, using that as one of my main vehicles, of which more anon) and to play with La Folie – whose next outing is in north-east London, illustrating the six (or many less) degrees of separation effect by being hosted by one Anita Datta – musical director of St Mary’s Woodford and my accompanist for my ATCL exam back in July. Musicians, like music, turn out to all be ultimately interconnected …

Giving someone the shivers

10 days ago was (sorry to remind you of this) Hallowe’en. For the occasion, Abney Park Cemetery Trust (curators of the massive graveyard-cum-park in Stoke Newington) had hired my new affiliation the Winter Quartet to provide a suitably themed performance in the chapel onsite.

Atmospheric, this certainly was. It’s dark by late afternoon in an English October, of course, and so it was absolutely pitch black for an evening concert. Like the cemetery itself, the tombstones on the walk from the main gate to the chapel tend towards the grandiose, overshadowing the torchlit pedestrian. The chapel was built in Victorian Gothic style, but gains a power of unsettling its architects could never have bestowed from having fallen into fairly comprehensive disrepair in the late 20th century and ‘stabilised’, in archaeological terms, rather than significantly restored. So the walls are standing and the roof is whole (though I’m quite glad we didn’t have to test whether it was waterproof), but the windows are covered only with wire grilles, the floor is gravel and the interior is a mix of remaining blank plaster and uncovered brick – punctuated here and there by graffiti tags, themselves now ageing. Cosy, it was not. Lighting came only from a handful of battery lanterns which created superb shadows, projecting upwards from the floor; heating there was none whatsoever, which probably didn’t aid our playing (thankfully it wasn’t as cold for the performance as for the run-through the previous night, when our Spanish first violinist complained her fingertips were numb about a quarter of the way through!).

Into these foreboding surroundings we brought a programme ranging from the silly (the Addams Family theme, ‘Thriller’), through the melancholic (Chopin’s Marche Funèbre, Leonard Cohen’s or rather Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’) to the occasionally downright hair-raising (‘Night on a Bare Mountain’ and a highly accomplished arrangement of Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ that repaid the rehearsal time it took us to learn it by getting the best applause of the evening). The audience, fortified by blankets and mulled wine, seemed to enjoy themselves and we’ve been asked back to provide something seasonally shifted in the spring (perhaps in daylight?).

Not your usual string quartet job, compared to either ‘real’ chamber music in recital or decorative background froth at wedding receptions. Here’s hoping we’re opening up a market niche for alt-strings … offers considered!

Something old, something new

22nd-23rd October saw me in Chichester, back in the company of La Folie for some English Baroque repertoire (on violin in my case). Nothing new there; I’ve done two concerts with them before and obviously the repertoire is upwards of 250 years old!

But, this wasn’t concerts; we were recording the consort’s début album. That marks a first for me; my first serious classical ensemble recording (as opposed to solo demos and rock / pop / electronic / etc. releases). Also a first for me: using a (replica) period instrument in anger (I’ve used a Baroque-pattern bow before). I’ve already shared some photos of that, loaned, instrument, so won’t go over dead ground, but suffice to say it does really help to not have to fight the inclinations of a modern instrument, even while the differences demand some shifts in technique – I was surprised to find how much difference it made to do without a chin rest, despite having played several times before without a shoulder stand, for instance.

So this was two days of putting new learning into practice (I’d been practising on the instrument for the previous week, between rehearsals and performances of West Side Story on my conventional modern violin) and taking a performance sweep through from turn of the 16th to 17th century consort music (really written for viols) all the way to an Arne trio sonata written in the mid-18th century and occupying a very different sound world. We need to go back and tie up a few loose ends, but got a lot done in a short space of time and are hoping for a release date early next year.

Completing that job saw me back at home, devoting renewed energy to Bach unaccompanied cello music on viola and to audition material for work backing a singer-songwriter. In addition, after a month in Australia and New Zealand, Elaine Samuels is back in the UK and Kindred Spirit have three full band gigs this month. I write this before packing up to head off to the first, out in Surrey (Ottershaw to be precise). Also coming up in November: another London Filthy Spectacula gig, a music video shoot and more to be confirmed …

West Side Story

So a couple of weeks back I spent most of the week working on Mayhem Theatre Company’s West Side Story. Which is kind of a 20th-century jazz-derived opera disguised as a Broadway musical. Anyone who’s played or sung it will vouch that it’s really difficult (possibly even more so in the somewhat reduced orchestration, still about 50% larger than the typical amateur pit band of today). I’m not going to lie, this was hard work for me, and I know it was for the cast too (one of my housemates being a minor soloist in said cast). Fitting vibraphone, xylophone, two timpani and the rest of the percussionist’s gear into a studio theatre while still having any space to stage the show turned out to be the least of our problems! (This is also the only time I’ve seen a drum kit – with two floor toms due to the demands of Bernstein’s fully scored tom-tom fills – crammed on to a head height gallery, let alone with double bass next to it. I never did see the bassist getting his instrument up and down each night – there was only a ladder to the gallery!) I was slightly reassured by being told of an RPO player who had depped with the West End pit band for the same show, assumed he could come in and sight-read it because it’s only a musical – and seriously failed to do so. Nevertheless, after some very hard work in rehearsals and I think some justifiable nerves all round, the performances came together well and the show played to rapturous applause from full houses in its five performances. All credit to cast, director, choreographer, MD etc. who had worked on it for months rather than the three rehearsals the band did before opening night!

It was a quick change from finishing that run Saturday night to turning up to record Baroque violin Sunday morning with La Folie. Which justifies another blog post …

New babies

Some new additions to the musical household lately:

Sadly I don’t get to keep this one.

Well, sadly in terms of it’s a beautiful instrument that I’m enjoying playing. Less so in terms of paying for it would cut well into the savings I’m supposed to be keeping for a future flat deposit, so maybe not sadly really.

Reproduction Baroque violin by Marc Soubé and Baroque bow, on loan from Bridgewood and Neitzert – so that I can play them on the début album by La Folie, which we’re recording Sunday and Monday. Very exciting!

This one I am keeping:

No, not a new instrument, hence why it’s closed, just a new case. But after something like 2 years of lugging around my old viola case by bungee cords since it parted company with its handle and strap attachments, one that I can carry on my shoulders (and is light enough to do so for long periods comfortably) is almost as exciting as a new instrument frankly. It’s the little things in life. Big thanks to Jo Cocklin of Allegro Music in Chelmsford for getting me a good deal on this – highly recommended for all your musical needs.

Spooks with strings attached

Friday the 13th seems a good day to announce a Halloween performance (cue diminished seventh chords) …

No, surprisingly enough, this is not a Filthy Spectacula gig (though we are playing a private party this Saturday). Tuesday 31 October (in case you forgot when Halloween is) sees my début with the Winter Quartet on viola, injecting an extra chill into the beautiful but morbid setting of Abney Park Cemetery (home to the mouldering bones of pretty much everyone from Keats to Yeats to Amy Winehouse, one gathers). Think less songs about Victorian serial killers, more Danse Macabre, Night on a Bare Mountain and In the Hall of the Mountain King. Mmm, and some less obvious string quartet repertoire choices which I won’t give away.

Tickets have just gone on sale here and include free hot drinks against the physical chills (the Victorians weren’t big on heating in cemetery chapels – make sure your preferred Gothic / Dia de Muertos regalia is better suited to English winter than Mexican one); but we make no guarantees against the ectoplasmic ones.

Muwahaha.

Muwahahahaha.

Thinking laterally

When is a music career move not a musical decision?

When it concerns expenses and practicalities rather than actual playing, of course.

It’s become increasingly apparent over the last few months that being a professional musician without driving, always an uphill struggle, is in fact downright impractical and already holding me back. As well as tending to increase my expenses and therefore the amount of non-music work I need to keep doing to make the books balance overall. Too much public transport doesn’t run late enough at night to get back from evening performances; too many recordings (churches are popular, for reasons of acoustics and expense) and gigs (all the village pubs, and the country house weddings) are in out-of-the-way locations with no public transport whatsoever; too much of my work is still, and will probably still be, well outside London. Train tickets are expensive, coaches slow, infrequent and with very patchy geographical coverage.

So then, bite the bullet, renew my provisional licence, do an intensive course so I can’t be disadvantaged by lack of local drivers I can ask to practise with, and pass the test. This time.

Which I’m in the process of doing. But it isn’t as straightforward as that unfortunately. When I got my provisional (and, er, failed the test a couple of times), I didn’t have type 1 diabetes. The DVLA are, understandably, rather concerned about the possibility of diabetics having hypos behind the wheel (chiefly; one can argue there are other aspects they should be concerned about, but the paperwork doesn’t align with the belief), and so the current stage is that I’ve just sent a six-page medical / consent / declaration form back to them, in hopes they will shortly approve my provisional licence renewal and I can get on with actually getting legal to drive by myself. The fact that the DVLA’s freepost address has been cancelled (presumably a budget cut) and I have to stamp everything I send them, including my old licence to prove I’m not keeping it, is a minor inconvenience compared to the worry I may be prevented from ever driving out of hand. Here’s hoping …

In preparation

Lots of music learning going on round here at the moment. Besides spending Sunday workshopping the Rite of Spring (because, you know, now I can say I’ve played it. If I’d been able to say that a month earlier I might have got that nicely-paid job playing it for an orchestra outreach event … ) and the Mahler performed the day before. To give you a flavour, this is what’s currently haunting the music stand:

  • Bach cello suite number 3 (C major) – on viola, of course; it’s a complicated narrative but this is tied up with classical career progression.
  • Viola pad for a themed string quartet gig (more function- than recital-style) on Halloween at Abney Park Cemetery with The Winter Quartet

Waiting to be printed:

  • Violin parts for October’s Baroque consort album recording with La Folie (real work on these is also waiting on me picking up my hire Baroque violin from Bridgewood & Neitzert!)

In the post (at least I hope it is by now):

  • One of the violin parts to West Side Story, for a week’s run in the middle of this month with Mayhem Theatre Company

Meanwhile looking beyond written parts, The Filthy Spectacula refresh our memories after an end-of-summer breather, to play a private party next week, followed by public London gigs in November, January and February and looking more closely at the long-hypothetical second album. Elaine is Down Under all this month, but Kindred Spirit have not one, not two, but three November gig dates to make up for it.

And I’m booked for a funding pitch in November (mostly my own transcriptions so I’d better learn the parts thoroughly!), a chamber orchestra new music recording session in early December, and so it goes on. No one ever stopped learning and remained active as a musician, right?