Wednesday 8 February 2012

Madrigalia Choir from The King’s School Canterbury: visit to Spain in 2009

A couple of years ago I received a phone call at Madrid airport, where I was waiting with a colleague and a group of students for our flight to Paris for one of our exchange visits. The caller was Nick Todd who is now Assistant Director of Music at the King's School in Canterbury.  

Nick’s call was to explain that his Madrigalia chamber choir of senior students had learnt the Misa Pro Defuntis by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Vitoria (ca.1548-1611), and he would like to arrange for the group to perform it in the setting for which it was composed, in Madrid. I agreed to do what I could and the call set the ball rolling on a fascinating musical adventure which concluded several months later with a spectacular performance of the piece by these wonderful young students, led by their expert and dedicated teacher.

Luis de Vitoria composed this music for the funeral of the Dowager Empress Maria, sister of Philip II of Spain. The site of the first performance was the convent Las Descalzas in Madrid’s historic city centre which remains in use as a convent which is open to visitors for a limited time each day and is not available for performances of the kind proposed. No amount of pleading by my Spanish colleague was enough to persuade the Mother Superior to change her mind, and I thought the project was going to flounder.

Then my colleague reminded me that Tomàs Luis de Vitoria was born in the walled city of Ávila and had sung as a boy chorister in the chapel at the St Thomas monastery in the city. He offered to approach the monks with the proposed concert. I had no idea that the chapel is in fact a large building which has been lovingly cared for, and which boasts an acoustic which inspired the composer in later life.

So, Plan B it was: Nick Todd and his group arrived on a morning flight, had lunch at school in Madrid and took a coach to Ávila in time for a rehearsal to catch the magic of the chapel’s acoustics. The concert had been publicised in Ávila and there was a large and appreciative audience who were privileged to hear a faultless performance of this complex work.

My students played a short introductory item conducted by my colleague: it was their first chance to experience playing in such a beautiful historic setting. For photos and historic information, see the city's tourism office.

The next morning the visitors made their way back to Canterbury: back to their commitments in national youth rugby and athletics teams and to their academic preparation, which for several of them meant Oxbridge entrance exams.

Over the years it has been a pleasure to welcome numerous groups to Madrid, many of them from the USA, and others fro Italy and the UK. You can read about these groups here as there are links to other posts and a report about a visit by Folkestra, a youth folk group.
Thank you Nick Todd, for your wonderful idea, and to your singers for bringing to life so spectacularly the music of Tomas Luis de Vitoria in a setting which was loved by the composer. This is surely one of the best chamber choirs I have ever heard.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

English folk music, alive and kicking

Over the years it has been a pleasure to welcome numerous groups to Madrid, many of them from the USA, such as the Shepherd University from West Virgina   , Morningside College in Iowa,  Homewood Flossmoor High School near Chicago, St John's School in Houston, Texas, the Amarillo Girls' Choir, also from Texas, and the South Goergia Girls' Choir.
All these groups travelled with Wens Travel while the La Jolla Coutry Day School choir arranged their own tour.

Three visiting groups from England stand out especially: Folkestra, from  Gateshead, a chamber choir from the King’s School, Canterbury and Morpeth School in Tower Hamlets, London.  

Ten members of the Folkestra group, The Sage Gateshead’s Regional Youth Folk Ensemble, aged 14 to 18, spent five days dodging the rain, much to their surprise, in an uncharacteristically wet start to Spring in the Spanish capital. For the Sage Gateshead of England’s specialist music centre, this tour is part of a programme of high profile performances which has taken the group to the stage of the Conservative Party Conference, and a Proms concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. 
The group’s first full day in Madrid started with two concerts for primary pupils in Pozuelo de Alarcón, whose education department supports a regular programme of educational concerts in a 300 seat concert hall in the Municipal Music & Dance School building. Over the years the children hear a wide range of instrumental groupings and styles, but this was the first time they had seen the melodeon and the Northumbrian Smallpipes and certainly hearing English folk the music live was a new experience. 

The children were invited to have their say, and there was a steady stream of interested and interesting questions to the group. The children were struck by the group’s ability to play everything from memory, by their cohesive nature and their ability to start every set off impeccably without a conductor. The tour’s musical director, Lillias Kinsman-Blake was very much present not on stage but sitting in the audience, knowing that the preparation had all been done at home well before the concert. She is an extremely creative person in music and graphic design,and her web site is certainly worth a visit.
Lillias has founded a folk group called The Shee and this is how the group has been described:
“The Shee are an exceptional all-female band showcasing three powerful vocalists and an astonishing level of instrumental prowess. Their diverse range of individual musical influences combine to produce an adventurous brew of Folk, Scots, Gaelic and Bluegrass and has earned them considerable recognition along with high profile performances at festivals including Cambridge and Celtic Connections, as well as concerts across Europe and Canada.”
The same evening the teenagers from the north of England met an adult group of Spanish folk musicians. The dulzaina, a double-reed pipe, traditional drums, pipes and a shepherd’s flute played with three fingers of one hand were among the instruments played and the expert Jeremías Diego Fraile gave a fascinating explanation of the historical and geographical circumstances which have helped to spread the instruments around Spain. After the two groups had performed to each other for much longer than planned, the locals ended up teaching their visitors the Jota and other dances, and the visitors taught their hosts some English folk dances.
The afternoon took the group to a local secondary school. During an open class the Folkestra players skilfully arranged one of their tunes for the school players including violins, guitars, and ‘cellos and by the end of the session the piece was ready for the next day’s concert. It was refreshing for the school’s young violinists to see their near contemporaries playing with such obvious enjoyment and it was a challenge to prepare to perform from memory.
In the evening’s concert there was an audience of 120 teenagers at an English teaching centre, whose students attend many different Spanish day schools. The cultural and linguistic aspects of the event were reinforced by photos of Gateshead and brief spoken introductions by the players.
 The next day, back at the secondary school, 150 students squashed into the school’s main foyer which served as an alternative to the washed out garden which was the planned venue, and admired the Folkestra set, which began with the tune prepared the day before including twenty school pupils. The kitchen staff found a perch on the stairs, and even the security guard took some time out to enjoy the music. 
The evening session was a repeat of the day before, with a slightly younger teenage audience of 130 language students. The Folkestra group played unaware that they were making history in a small way: they are the first young musicians from the UK to perform for the English teaching centre students. 
According to a Senior Teacher responsible for organising the concerts, “Feedback from our students has been really excellent, they thoroughly enjoyed the event. They learnt about the North of England, typical English music and songs and instruments and that young people from Gateshead are very nice!”
Folkestra’s last day started early with packing and a taxi to the local school and short concerts for Primary and then for the Early Years children, about 400 altogether. The openness and enthusiasm of the 3 to 10 years olds make them a very enjoyable audience to play for.   
During this tour Folkestra generated an interest in English folk music and in instruments which are generally unfamiliar in Spain, and their playing at seven different performances to a total audience of more than 1,000 was always of an excellent standard. It was a pleasure to welcome a group of such enthusiastic players who are also such charming people.
In 2005 I attended the  National Association of Music Educators conference at the Sage Gateshead. A major incentive for attending was to see the landmark building at first hand, and the trip was worth it simply on that level. When I heard and saw Folkestra under David Oliver’s direction we started talking about them coming to perform in Madrid. I am very glad that Ruth Currie, Ensemble Co-ordinator at The Sage Gateshead, was able to bring the group to Madrid in 2008 for this memorable example of intercultural dialogue.

Pavane pour une infante défunte: the excruciating beauty of Ravel’s music

It’s the high note entry in the solo French Horn, floating in exquisitely over a string accompaniment. That’s what marks out this piece, the Pavane for a dead princess, as one of my favorite pieces of music. Of course it works as a piano piece, as Ravel originally composed it, but his orchestration finds an intensity that is impossible to achieve on the piano.
One reason for this is that there is never any certainty that the horn player will play that note without cracking. Even after years of expert tuition and diligent practice, even with the most musical of personalities, even the most experienced brass players approach solo entries like this with emotions ranging from respect to trepidation. So, for me, the individual player’s moment of truth, which comes every time he plays the first notes of this melody, contributes to the appreciation of this music: every time it is played there is a private, personal musician’s story being played out. I have discussed the relationship of musicians to their music in a previous post  
Ravel’s skill at orchestrating music has been recognized by followers in many styles. One Hollywood film score after another is indebted to him for its sound palettes, and Nelson Riddle, one of Frank Sinatra’s favourite and most effective arrangers, studied Ravel’s music and readily acknowledged the influence of the Frenchman’s technique on his own work in the swing, pop and film genres. You can read about this in Peter Levinson book September in the Rain
When I attended lectures in London years ago Professor Keith Swanwick spoke on aesthetics and referred back to the work of Louis Arnaud Reid and Suzanne Langer, whose Philosophy in a new key is especially enlightening on music. I have discussed elsewhere research conducted by Professor Susan Hallam on The Power of Music 

Professor Swanwick described a number of ways we respond aesthetically to a work of music. There is the physiological response, where the sound waves produced by the harmonic resonance impact on our neurological system and  cause that frisson of delight, that tingle down the spine which is occasionally so powerful it is almost painful.
Then there is the sentimental, associative response a kind of They’re playing our song moment, when we experience pleasurable emotions as we remember an occasion in the past when we heard this same piece of music and we associate the emotions of those happy memories with the music. I have discussed this emotion in a previous post writing a concert review  The there is a formal, intellectual appreciation, where we take delight in hearing/seeing the formal structure of a piece as it moves through from its opening notes to its final conclusion, each section making a logical contribution to the others.

For me, the Pavane pour une infante défunte pushes all the buttons, covers all bases and rings all these bells. From the high French Horn melody near the start to the shimmering strings at the end, this piece combines many aspects of aesthetic appreciation and is an example for me of the power of music, how music can be so moving that it is almost excruciating in its beauty.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Tom Stoppard’s best joke

In 1976 I heard the playwright Sir Tom Stoppard give a talk about writing. During the Q&A session at the end I asked him a very serious question about how he related music to drama, as he had just premiered Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, for which Andre Previn had composed the music. The play was revived at the National Theatre in London in 2010, and he discusses it in this Telegraph interview 
Someone else asked a question which the rest of the audience found much more gripping, as the questioner wanted to know how becoming a famous face, as well as a famous name, had changed the playwright’s life. I remember one of the examples he gave was that on more than one occasion his taxi driver had recognized him and had got into a long story about how he too wrote literature/poems/books/scripts/screenplays, and would Mr Stoppard like to read some of his work and he could drop it round at his house anytime no trouble at all.
I remembered this story just now as I was writing  a post  about how pantomimes in England date back to Elizabethan theatre customs, where the female character roles were played by male actors, and it reminded me of the boatman scene in Shakespeare in Love.
In his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, his clever and witty story of Elizabethan theatrical intrigues and love’s labours lost, he has the Shakespeare character take a boat along the Thames. Before the end of the trip, the boatman recognizes Shakespeare and explains how he too writes poetry and plays and he would love to show Mr Shakespeare his work.
While you are in a Shakespeare frame of mind, here’s a fragment from the Sonnet number 1:
From fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby beauty's rose might never die,

But as the riper should by time decease,

His tender heir might bear his memory

I took this from a site where you can read his sonnets for free

Tom Stoppard has probably told his taxi driver story many times to many audiences, and I am sure those listeners will have taken as much pleasure as I at seeing how he slips in such a funny idea into the screenplay, imagining how Shakespeare might have shared his own experience of the price of fame.