Despite appearances, preparing content for this blog is rather time-consuming. Combining this fact with a busy cultural life and a demanding recent work-load means that there is quite the backlog of idea-eggs awaiting incubation and a chance to hatch into full formed posts. A couple of these are awaiting events at the start of the coming week to deliver the last packets of juxtapositional DNA to trigger their germination. Others, like today’s entry, are just waiting for the author to commit to their gestation, rather than frittering away his time on even more frivolous activities.
When I first started going regularly to musical gigs in recent times, it was always to classical music. I believe I can trace this back to a gig by the West Forest Sinfonia in Cambridge back in 2006. I went to this gig as the sister of a friend of my parents was a member, playing either the violin or the viola (or maybe both). As so often in my life (if not yours), a mostly random one-off choice has had lasting repercussions through the following years: my life is less curated than just happens (sometimes, initially at least, for comic or blog-related purposes).
Turning the clock forward to 2019, classical music has to fight for its place in my rather packed and varied cultural schedule. Nevertheless, it does occasionally make the cut of an evening (and will do so this afternoon, boosted by the offer of free cake) and the last few weeks have provided some really glorious gigs with particularly well formed programmes.
My first gig involved Lawrence Power and Friends – in this case a cellist and pianist. The spur to attend this gig was the ‘headliner’: Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2. However, given that Lawrence plays both violin and viola, the programme had the trio sliced in five different ways: which does make for excellent value for money given only three musicians. The second half explored the use of Jewish folk tunes in classical music. While the first half lacked such a clear peg on which to hang its well-chosen selection, it did introduce me to the composer Rebecca Clarke as well as including the work of more familiar (and masculine) names, albeit with unfamiliar tunes: Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. I feel that Rebecca Clarke is a good name to mention so close to IWD as she managed to make a career as a female composer and musician when this was far from easy: her life was also not without more than her share of difficulties.
I am no expert on classical music but the selection of (what seemed to me) less commonly heard repertoire was particularly well done and created an especially wonderful evening. Mr Power is an Associate Artist at Turner Sims this year, which means he comes back a few times during the year: trailing fresh (and) friends on each occasion. So good was this first gig, that last week I returned to the ‘Sims’ (a venue just crying out to have a green diamond mounted above it) to see what his new friends could do. This time he came with Collegium, who seem to be a collection of young, and annoyingly gifted, string players based in London: though claiming a range of places as home (one can only hope that such wonderful musical sharing survives the end of the month). I am rather keen on seeing Collegium in action again, though have failed to find a web presence so far…
The evening started with Biber’s La Battalia, written in 1673 but quite startlingly modern. I could easily believe it was written in the current century, with nods to the baroque: a much easier route than that taken by Mr Biber who wrote it in the baroque with nods to centuries yet to come. I am forced to wonder if Mr Biber spent some time travelling with a doctor… It would also count as a semi-staged performance as the musical ‘troops’ did indeed gather from various corners of the auditorium. It is an amazing piece – and gives a much needed outing for the theorbo (when is its potential as a jazz instrument going to be realised?) – and, as a result, I am writing this post listening to Herr Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.
Biber was followed by an actual 21st century piece (written without the aid of a madman with a box), Thomas Larcher’s Still. Whilst written a few years back, this was its UK premiere and I loved the piece: it shared the first half very comfortably with a piece written 330 years earlier. I particularly enjoyed the ‘prepared’ piano and the slow removal of what looked like rubber door wedges from inside the Steinway D. I also gained entirely inappropriate pleasure from learning that the viola was played by Kim Kashkashian at the wolrd premiere: it seems that Kims with Armenian heritage are more varied than the media might lead one to believe, though I fear skill on the viola is less remunerative than celebrity.
The second half took Piazzola’s glorious, jazz-inflected Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas and interleaved each of his seasons with seasonal pieces by others. Brahms provided Summer and Autumn, with Schubert’s Winterreise – with the voice part taken by the viola (I think) providing Winter and Spring. The Piazzola, rather than taking me to Buenos Aires, instead took my to Sicily and the fictional town of Vigàta: it seems clear that the chap who writes the music for the RAI version of Montalbano is a big fan of Piazzola (and I am fan of both). The instrumental version of Der Leiermann, on the other hand, reduced me to emotional mush: though I just about kept it together.
Another stunning and varied evening of string-based classical music and while it is too late for you to catch it live, it is being broadcast on Radio 3 this Tuesday night (12 March 2019) and will no doubt then by available on iPlayer or the fresh hell that is BBC Sounds (to be fair, I have not even tried BBC Sounds: the relentless plugging has put me off!). The gig was rather poorly attended (very much Southampton’s loss), which had some advantages as I my chosen seat had me basically sitting in one of Radio 3’s larger mike stands (and mistaken for a sound engineer: I assure you that I was not wearing cargo shorts): I moved a row back for a little more comfort but I believe the quality of my applause and absence of bronchial distress should come over very nicely on the radio. Clearly, the chance to show off my skills as an audience-member are the primary driver for me actually writing up this post.
Lawrence is returning with a final friend (this season) in early May and, should I be around, I shall try and join him again as he has earned my trust with both his programming and his choice of friends. On that occasion he will be with the pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, who I saw a month ago with another very well chosen programme. I almost didn’t go as the publicity material made Pavel look like a man who was balancing a dual career as both KGB assassin and knitwear model. However, in real life he came across as a slightly-built, rather geeky lad wearing trousers that stopped someway before they reached the ground. He was also a stunning pianist who made a very novel lighting choice, with little more than the keyboard of the piano lit: it was very effective and created a really intimate vibe, I’m surprised I’d never seen it done before.
It does seem more-than-possible to programme some properly interesting classical concerts: you don’t just have to have a baroque or classical (so shorter) sonata plus short piece in the first half and romantic (so longer) sonata in the second half. I have hopes that these slightly more adventurous choices might help to bring down the average age of the audience, certainly more than I can as a 53 year old (though I am still bringing it down), for there’s loads of interesting repertoire out there to be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds. There are enough forces in this world trying to push us into silos (giants of the internet, I am looking at you!), let’s resist and try something we wouldn’t normally attend. The same internet, when not seeking to simultaneously narrow and radicalise us, does give us unprecedented opportunities to dip our toes into new genres at zero cost: as but one example, a couple of centuries ago, if you wanted to hear a string quartet you’d have to hire one or form one…