Monday 26 August 2013

Gillian Howell: Music in a conflicted world

Gillian Howell, Australian Musician, Facilitator & Educator recently wrote about her experiences in 1998 in the post- conflict environment of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

 She was struck then at how important it was for people to make music even in the most challenging circumstances. We might think that just the effort of finding enough to eat and drink in a war-torn country would overwhelm people and leave them without energy for such a frivolous and unproductive activity as making music. She details her experiences at the Pavarotti Music Centre and compares them with accounts written by David Wilson, who was the director of the centre at the time.  She goes on to explore what making music really is and why we “do music ”, and summarises some important recent research on the subject.

I will not rewrite her work here, better you go to her blog  

I mention it because my holiday reading treat has been  The Rest Is Noise  by Alex Ross and in his harrowing chapter on Music in Hitler´s Germany: Death Fugue he describes how music provided a lifeline, a faint reminder of normality for prisoners when orchestras were formed in Auschwitz. In 1941 and 1942 men´s orchestras were established to entertain their captors and in 1943 a women’s orchestra was formed. 

Alma Rosé, Mahler’s niece, was one of the prisoners, and when she took over the direction of the women’s orchestra she raised the standard by applying her perfectionism even in these extreme circumstances. Ross tells of a Polish cellist who recalled that Rosé had violently criticised her for missing an accidental. “At the time the young musician was furious; in retrospect, she thought that this seemingly futile resistance on perfection had saved her from insanity.”

This excerpt chimed with Gillian Howell’s observations about Bosnia-Herzegovina: that there is something about practical, active music making that is basic to our existence and that can offer healing even in the most appalling situations. Music takes us beyond the here and now.  

Here is one of her quotes:

Christopher Small, in ‘Musicking’ (1998) suggests that when people “music”, they are engaging in a kind of ritual, and human rituals are a way for us to experience our world as we wish it to be

I just re-read some of Gillian´s earlier writing on her time in Timor L’Este, which moved me so much as I followed her diary over the weeks on my safe and easy journey to my safe and privileged school. Here is what she and her partner were working on with local children one day in 2011: 

Yesterday we focused on the idea that from the moment a person is born they have the same human rights as every other person.

Sunday 25 August 2013

Midwest Young Artists in The Hague, Netherlands

It was a great pleasure last June to welcome to school nearly one hundred young musicians from the Chicago area music school, the Midwest Young Artists    

The music school is very well established with a long history of high quality music making and now has its own premises in a converted former army base. They have a wonderful series of music programmes for all ages from little children to young adults including choirs, symphony and chamber music ensembles and jazz combos in different formats.  Students from the school have won major awards in prestigious national competitions.

By the time the group made it to The Hague they had already performed several concerts in France and Belgium and they were in the city as guests of the VHJO youth orchestra of The Hague which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year.

You can see full reports and photos on the tour blog 

The concert they performed for us included the Symphony Orchestra and the Jazz Ensemble, directed by Dr Allan Dennis and Mr Chris Madsen. We wanted this music to be shared and enjoyed by as many of our students as possible and we did this by fitting it in during a mentor hour. This worked out well in that about 350 students and teachers were able to attend, but it meant that we had to limit the timing to 45 minutes. It was clear that the visitors had much more music than could fit in that time, and that our students would have listened for longer as they were admiring the musicians and enjoying their music so much.

Dr Dennis led his students in a varied programme: for many students the highlight was the finale, the theme from Star Wars. For me the highlight was a movement from a longer work by Massachusetts born composer Alan Hovhaness  (1911 – 2000). It is always a great moment to hear someone conduct music  which they not only know about thoroughly, but also care about deeply, and even in this simple, informal setting we were treated to a performance of this nature-inspired music which moved many of us to search for more of this composer´s work.  

Mr Masden led his jazz group from the piano. Many of my younger students commented to me how they noticed how carefully the players were following him even though he “did not seem to be directing”. In a group as good as this it is unfair to single out any players, but I think the drummer was expertly sensitive and controlled and we heard lovely solos from three trumpet players. Some of our Year 8 (7th Grade) sax players were sitting on the second row and were knocked out by the ultra cool alto sax playing. I am sorry I cannot name the players as I don´t have the list, but you know who you are! When we were making arrangements we agreed not to use amplification, and it was the right decision as the band adjusted instantly to the hall's acoustic and every instrument was beautifully balanced. 

Thanks to our friends at the VHJO for letting us be part of this tour, and especially to Dr Dennis, Mr Masden and all the wonderful students who shared their music with us with such great skill and enthusiasm: please come back soon and we will try to arrange for you to play for longer next time.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Frances & Larootcrowd

You can find Frances & Larootcrowd on Soundcloud in the organic rock category.
If organic means authentic rather than fake, original rather than imitation, and quality rather than dross, then organic is certainly the right category for this band.

Crystalline is a word that comes to mind when listening to Frances in a song like  Morning.
I don´t mean this in a sugar sweet sense, but crystalline in the sense of clear, direct and strong and with the power to go straight to the heart.

This band have built their career over time, and they do the same with their songs. They are not in a rush to wrap up a tune in 3 minutes and they let the music breathe, take time to build up interesting solos and use clever arrangements to deliver maximum emotional power.

On the Festimad band page their music is described as psychedelic so I did start linking up their songs with sounds from years ago: there´s a nice easy shuffle groove on Lemon Tree      which took me back to America´s 1971 song A horse with no name and there are some vintage Pink Floyd inspired guitar solos on  River , which opens with a very Rubber Soul sound. 

Frances uses the higher register of her voice in most of her songs but on Travel  she shows off a powerful lower register which opens up more expressive possibilities.  I wonder if among her psychedelic virtual collection she´s followed Marianne Faithful, not a bad role model by any standards.

Frances Ribes Renshaw is the songwriter and the voice that fronts this outfit, and Larootcrowd are smooth and laid back. This band have done their time in their native Madrid and on the Spain circuit and they are clearly ready for their big moment. 

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Ana Palacios & Anar Ibrahimov & Kammer Philharmonie in Denia

What could really go wrong in a concert presided over by beautiful  images, resplendent in blue robes and ringed in gold and accompanied by large scale paintings and dominated by a formidable dome? This was the setting at the grandiose Asunción church in Denia, Alicante for a recent concert by musicians of the Chamber  Philharmonia from Cologne.

“Classical music the world over” is the motto of the Chamber Philharmonia of Cologne  . As far as I can see, this is a flexible ensemble dedicated to exploring performance  formats beyond the standard concert hall and its members are drawn from many countries, with the city of Cologne as their meeting point. Tours regularly take the ensemble to New Zealand, Australia, Spain, Great Britain, Ireland and many other countries and in Germany there is a regular partnership with the Mercedes Benz Centre.
When I saw a poster advertising  Ana Palacios  as solo flautist  I assumed she was from the local region of Alicante, one of the many leading woodwind players to grow up through the thriving Spanish  village band tradition. Anyway, it turns out that Ana Palacios was born and trained in Zaragoza before making her way to Germany for post graduate study. Her performance in this concert showed a technical brilliance and musical sensitivity which are beautifully rounded.
Anar Ibrahimov was born in Azerbaijan and studied in his home country and in France en route to Cologne. His violin playing is of such virtuosity that this evening´s repertoire fell comfortably under his fingers and for his encore he chose to play a piece from his own country which was beautiful in its simplicity: I am sorry I could not hear the composer´s name when Ibrahimov made his impromptu announcement.  He had already lit the fireworks so there was no need to show off technique, instead he gave the evening an original and moving finale. 
The two soloists were joined by a quintet whose names did not appear in the simple printed programme and this is a pity as they certainly deserve their share of recognition for the success of this lovely evening. Not only did they all play with excellent intonation and balance, but they overcame the challenges of ensemble posed by the formidable dome, which gives the church a very special acoustic.   
The programme was made up of a series of short, light pieces suitable for a summer evening which were tuneful and entertaining yet which gave scope for all the players, and especially the soloists, to show their mettle. In the first half, concerti by Vivaldi and Bach and in the second half a Mozart Serenade, Sarasate´s Romanza Andaluza and variations on themes from Carmen by Borne.
The chamber size ensemble worked especially well in the Mozart as one voice per part gave a clarity that we don´t appreciate when parts are doubled. For me this gave an original freshness to this very familiar work. Was I the only one who missed a harpshichord for the continuo in the Baroque pieces? The orchestration of the Sarasate  was not quite complete but this music is mainly about strong melodies and brilliant solo playing and on this occasion the soloists´ flair was enough to faithfully convey the music´s character.

If the exquisite setting of the Asunción church and the otherworldly playing by  Chamber Philharmonia Cologne tempted us to think we were momentarily living on a higher plane, the interjections of a samba troupe intruding from the street to advertise Denia´s summer shopping night brought us all back to earth.  For a couple of hours at least, the spiritual and the material worlds were intertwined by music.   

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Magistrum at Summerjazz in Denia

Introducing The Impossible Dream as his encore number, the presenter noted how appropriate the song is to Spain´s desperate situation. We seemed a long way from the political and economic crisis, cosseted in the Torrecremada gardens  on a balmy August evening, listening to the well oiled Magistrum quartet going through their numbers in the second event of the Summerjazz    series.

The concert started well with a jazz trio interpretation of La Tarara. This is one of the Spanish folk songs collected and arranged by Federico García Lorca and it followed a style of Flamenco jazz  that´s now pretty familiar thanks to artists like Chano Dominguez   Guillermo McGill  and  Miguel Angel Chastang  in Spain and Michel Camilo   further afield, to mention but a few. The trio played the opening of Bach´s first Prelude in C and I thought we were settled into an evening of professional and predictable fare, but tenor J.L.Luri soon made it clear we were going to hear a varied and, at times, completely original set.
J.L.Luri is an operatic tenor and the programme was built around his beautiful voice. It wasn´t a surprise to read later on the  Magistrum   web site that he has sung in more than 100 opera productions and has played leading roles in grand opera repertoire such as La Traviata.  The Bach prelude turned into Ave Maria and was followed by standards like As  time goes by, Over the rainbow, Moon River and Maria and opera favourites such as Nessum Dorma, which he sang as if it was all so easy.
There were lovely performances of Napolitan songs including O sole mio and then, to me, the most interesting part, Spanish songs. In almost all the songs the trio broke into swing interludes between the verses, and sometimes the whole accompaniment was in jazz style.
The concert began with La Tarara as an instrumental, as I have said, but as it went on we heard great tunes like Granada and a couple of arias from the Spanish operetta genre called zarzuela. Granada is intriguing to start with when we remember that Augustin Lara had never traveled from his native Mexico before writing this song, which seems to perfectly embody the Spanish style. It´s a bit like Puccini´s achievement in evoking Madame Butterfly´s Japan without having left Europe. Musically it is interesting because the harmonies and chord changes are very busy and give rise to some nifty playing and effective dynamic control.
The zarzuela items really worked well in that there was no lowering of the standard of execution in the tenor part, yet the trio breathed new life into the accompaniments, which, let´s be honest, are at times limited, especially in a trio reduction.
I really enjoyed the very detailed and discreet drumming by Fernando Cherro  and the nice loose, free bass playing on bass guitar an electric upright bass by J.A. Bornay. The jazz soloing fell almost entirely to pianist V.J. Ruíz and he maintained an exceptionally high level of interest throughout a long programme. If I had to choose  the most effective solos I would go for O sole mio and What a wonderful world, which were both totally assured and yet fresh.

Is it an Impossible Dream to think that Spain can dig its way out of this crisis? If there is a future for the country it will come from  the creativity and originality of  its citizens and artistes, the kind of creativity we were privileged to share thanks to Magistrum in the gardens in Denia.