Saturday, 24 November 2012

Contemporary Orchestral Music - Appealing to the 'Dark side' of Human nature?

As I sat through a concert at the University of Nottingham's Djanogly Recital Hall yesterday afternoon, I could not help but wonder what the music was trying to achieve. I am not commenting on the overall compositions and performances (for the compositions were performed well), but on how the pieces speak to the audience or whether they have set out to communicate something to the audience at all.

This concert featured Antony Clare and Sarah Watts (otherwise known as Scaw Duo), playing five pieces of contemporary music for Bass Clarinet and Piano. In the first four pieces (compositions by Theo Loevendie, Alexander Kolassa, Angela Elizabeth Slater and George Nicholson) there was immense technical ability needed for both parts. The Piano and Bass Clarinet spoke on their own terms for the most part, but sometimes managed to give us a sense of togetherness. There were complex rhythms, extreme range exploration, cluster chords, atonality, knocking on the piano, plucking of strings on the Piano and multiphonics on the Bass Clarinet... the pieces basically included a lot of modern aspects, sometimes including hints of tonality (or 'happy' chords, if you like), conventional structures and textures. With the experimentation of modern technique and systems, these pieces included almost as much aggression as you would perhaps see from a wild tiger in its natural habitat.

Listening to these pieces, live, is the source of my current thinking that the likes of atonalism and free composition in many contemporary compositions appeal to the 'Dark side' of human nature, revealing raw, intense emotions within both the composer and listener. Is there any 'happiness' in modern compositions anymore, or are compositions merely ways of experimenting and exploring the extremes of instrumental ranges, compositional elements and technical abilities? Are we to take these compositions as autonomous and simply appreciate the composer's enthusiasm for trying 'new' things, or should we connect with the intense, aggressive emotions that often arise? This of course leads to the question of programmatic vs. abstract music in a modernist world of music-makers...

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Review: John Wilson and John Wilson's Orchestra, Nottingham Concert Hall (26/10/12)

Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart can continue to rest easy with their music under the baton of John Wilson, whose constant energy and jubilant personality actuated his orchestra, and vocalists, into delivering an exemplary and thoroughly entertaining performance.

This was the sixth of twelve performances on their current tour, ‘A Celebration of Rodgers And Hammerstein and Rodgers And Hart’, which features popular songs and instrumentals from their newest album, Rodgers and Hammerstein: At the Movies. Previous tours and performances at the Proms have celebrated MGM Film Musicals (2009), Rodgers and Hammerstein Film Musicals (2010), Hollywood Film Musicals (2011), and this summer, along with semi-staging My Fair Lady, they performed a both moving and energetic program entitled ‘The Broadway Sound’. Having seen this performance live at the Proms in August, the brilliance of the conductor, orchestra and vocalists has remained fresh in my mind.

Solo vocalists Sir Thomas Allen, Annalene Beechey, Kim Criswell and Julian Ovenden joined John Wilson and his orchestra in a spectacular awakening of hit musical songs, along with some less familiar tunes to make the program more varied and less predictable (for instance, ‘Flower Drum Song’ from Rodgers And Hart’s Allegro). All four vocalists had the pleasure of performing solos and duets, before ‘ending’ the performance with a full company number (‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over’, Carousel).

It was, of course, right for the orchestra to start the night with the spirited overture of Oklahoma!, probably the most well-known of all the Rodgers And Hammerstein musicals. John Wilson immediately took control of the orchestra, and indeed of the whole concert hall, which he labeled “the best acoustic in the land”. The orchestra, as usual, showed off their phenomenal instrumental skills with polished rhythms, controlled dynamics and did not put a tone out of place. This aesthetic was to remain for the rest of the concert.

Then on walks a dapper, dark-haired tenor, Julian Ovenden, who won the audience over immediately with a believable performance of the crowd-favourite, ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’’. Oh, what a beautiful voice. He followed up that solo later with a heartfelt rendition of ‘Younger Than Springtime’ (South Pacific), and I was pleased to see him perform not another ballad, but an upbeat, jazzed-up, Sinatra version of ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’ (originally from Jumbo).

Annalene Beechey joined Julian onstage (in the first of many dresses) to sing ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’, which on the whole was acted and sung admirably, however Annalene’s higher register often sat feebly alongside the power of the orchestra and her fellow singer. Nevertheless, her subtle soprano voice blended well with Kim Criswell’s big alto voice later in ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair’. It was difficult not to compare her performances of ‘Falling In Love With Love’ and ‘I Have Confidence’ with Sierra Boggess’ charismatic, operatic versions of them, however I did enjoy the sincere and dainty manner in which she delivered the latter. Annalene did win ‘best dressed’ of the night, more specifically with her long, purple dress with twinkling jewels around the middle (first worn in ‘If I Loved You’).

We all know Kim Criswell can deliver a big jazz number, often competing with the loud brassy sounds of the trumpets (like in ‘The Lady Is A Tramp’), but in later solos she proved to be a versatile actress and a technically versatile alto, showing that this performer lives and breathes musical theatre. Her comedic performance of ‘To Keep My Love Alive’ (A Connecticut Yankee), with her effortless vocal slides and bitter character sparked roaring laughter from the audience, and her contrasting sensuous, tranquil tones in ‘Little Girl Blue’ (Jumbo) brought thoughtful silence to the stands. This number was made extra-special by the delicate sounds of the harp, solo horn and flutes. Duet of the night had to be Kim and Julian’s performance of ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again’ (Babes In Arms), as they performed it with such a glowing fondness for their profession.

Sir Thomas Allen gave profound and heartfelt performances of ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ (South Pacific) and ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, acting out Hammerstein’s lyrics beautifully. But it was his performance of ‘Come Home’ (Allegro) that spoke to me the most, showing a sense of vulnerability and sorrow, rather than desperation. This sense of vulnerability was created by the soft tones in the higher register of his voice, all-the-while managing to maintain control over his pitch brilliantly.

The best thing about John Wilson’s programs is that he devotes a lot of time to the orchestra, enabling them to show their true colours without having to accompany a soloist. Having heard them perform ‘Slaughter On Tenth Avenue’ (On Your Toes) at the Proms, I was excited to see it appear at the end of the first half. Andrew Haveron (lead violinist) performed a lyrical and clean solo of the first theme on a couple of occasions, while the five-woodwind players on the back row traded their usual instruments for saxophones to lead the second jazzier theme. Other instrumentals included ‘The Carousel Waltz’, to which John Wilson enjoys dancing on the podium to, and the Main Title of ‘The Sound of Music’. The prominent brass and rhythmic kit and percussion, as usual, brought vibrant character and sound to each number, while the strings and woodwind elegantly held each number together.

Thunderous applause followed the full company number and after some thankful bows, John Wilson encouraged the audience to sing along in the notorious encore, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ (Carousel). The audience responded with eagerness and enthusiasm, uniting with the performers to sing and hear this last song in stereo.

As I walked outside into the crowds of older people leaving the concert hall on this Friday night, I saw fellow students stumbling prematurely from bar-to-bar. I chuckled to myself, for I was drunk in a different way. I was drunk on the pleasing music of Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart, and on the sensational sounds of John Wilson and the John Wilson Orchestra.

(A shorter, edited version was published on University of Nottingham's Impact Magazine's website on 31/10/12 -

Monday, 29 October 2012

Something Meaningful Or Purposeful To Say

Twitter is great way of expressing a view on something, however often 140 characters is just not enough. I’m not talking about general moans and groans about the sort of day you’ve had, but more meaningful, purposeful, often non-personal thoughts. Perhaps sharing a strong opinion of a Music concert or Theatre Production; writing a review. Perhaps a way of expressing your never-dying love for cheesecake.
This is where this blog will come in useful to me, and to many of you. Let the blogging begin.