Monday, 21 September 2020
Tonight is the opening of our concert season, the first ever pre-recorded on-line concert at King Edward’s School. Shells’ Recital is the start of it all.
32 performances given by this most remarkable year of Shells.
Antonia Lucio Vivaldi, born in 1678, is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque period. Vivaldi spent his most productive years at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice as a priest, teaching a variety of instruments and composing instrumental concertos and choral pieces for the girls’ gifted orchestra and choir. Vivaldi was also regarded as a virtuosic violinist and was highly renowned throughout Europe for all his wonderful compositions. Because of this, he enjoyed great success and fortune in his lifetime which he unfortunately wasted on extravagance leading to his death in poverty in 1741. Lots of Vivaldi’s music, including the Gloria, was lost for two centuries until the 1920s when it was rediscovered amongst a pile of forgotten manuscripts.
The Gloria, Vivaldi’s most famous choral piece, was composed around 1715 for the choir at the Ospedale. It presents the traditional Gloria from the Latin Mass in twelve varied movements.
The opening movement is a joyful chorus with trumpet and oboe obbligato and establishes the triumphant key of D major. The energetic orchestral introduction uses two motifs, one of octave leaps and the other a quaver-semiquaver figure. The choir enters dramatically with a dotted rhythm, announcing the text syllabically. These declamatory outbursts are punctuated by trumpets and oboe which bring a sense of grandeur to the movement
ii. Et in terra pax hominibus
This second movement (“And on Earth peace to all people”) completely contrasts the first as it is in triple time, a minor key and much slower. There are two subjects which appear throughout the movement, woven together in all the voices: “Et in terra pax…” and “Bonae voluntatis…”. The expressive chromatic harmonies in the music create a feeling of tension, which brings to mind how difficult it is for the world to be at peace.
iii. Laudamus te
The third movement is a joyful duet for two sopranos. The texture alternates between sections of simple imitation between the vocal lines and passages in parallel thirds where the voices sing together in cheerful harmony.
iv. Gratias agimus tibi
This six bar long, entirely homophonic movement in E minor uses homorhythm to solemnly evoke praise to God. The declaration of “Gratias agimus tibi” in two short phrases with dramatic pauses in between makes this a grand introduction to the following movement.
v.Propter magnam gloria
This movement, in the same key as the ‘Gratias’, showcases Vivaldi’s skill at contrapuntal writing. The movement is a fugue with the main subject starting in the soprano. It is characterised by four short crotchets followed by a minim and several quavers sung melismatically on the word “Gloria”. The subject is passed through the vocal parts but never sung by all four parts at once, giving the music a playful feel.
vi. Domine Deus
The Largo ‘Domine Deus’ is a beautiful duet between soprano and oboe. The movement is reminiscent of the Siciliana musical style with its dotted rhythms and compound time, which help to evoke a pastoral mood and the oboe adds to this graceful atmosphere.
vii. Domine Fili Unigenite
The ‘Domine Fili Unigenite’ is lively in tempo with the orchestra playing molto energico e ritmico (very energetically and rhythmically). The music embodies the French style of dotted rhythms making it sound like a rousing country dance. Whilst it may sound effortless and cheery, the music is rhythmically tricky as the choir have to be careful not to double dot every note.
viii. Domine Deus, Agnus Dei
This Adagio in D minor starts with a brief cello solo introduction followed by a beautiful alto solo. Later on in the piece, every phrase sung by the alto soloist is paired with an antiphonal response from the choir, “Qui tollis peccata mundi”.
These interjections are generally loud with the final response from the choir sounding like a plea with its fortissimo dynamic.
ix. Qui tollis peccata mundi
This movement builds on the words introduced by the choir in the previous movement. Its rich harmonies and expressive chromaticism makes the opening of this movement especially emotive. The slightly faster “suscipe deprecationem nostram” is in triple time and the use of dotted rhythms gives this section a feeling of urgency.
x. Qui sedes ad dexteram
Although an Allegro, the ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram’ continues the serious mood of the previous two movements with its B minor tonality. This movement is originally an alto solo but in this afternoon’s interpretation it will be a bass solo.
xi. Quoniam tu solus sanctus
The ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ marks the return of the optimistic D major music from the opening movement but introduces some new text: “Quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus. Tu solus altissimus, Jesu Christe.”
xii. Cum sancto spirito
This Allegro double fugue ends the whole work with unstoppable energy and is actually borrowed from a setting of the same text by Venetian composer Giovanni Maria Ruggieri. The two subjects share the same “Cum sancto spiritu…” text but the first subject is introduced by the basses with a marcato bass accompaniment to sound majestic whilst the second subject starts on the off beat and is sung first by the sopranos, sounding much lighter. There are also “Amens” sprinkled throughout the movement to decorate both these subjects but the fff “Amen” at the end of the movement triumphantly ends the whole work.
The dramatic contrasts in mood, distinctive melodies and the rhythmic drive of the music makes Vivaldi’s Gloria one of the most well-known pieces in the repertoire of Choral music.
Today, bassoonist and principal contrabassoonist of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Margaret Cookhorn shares her excitement about a rare experience – playing the contrabassoon in chamber music by Mozart. She also analyses how Richard Strauss brings exotic flavours to the orchestra in his take on Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, and explains her fascination for patterns in the music of Benjamin Britten. Margaret’s choices range from a miniature by Elgar played by violinist Nigel Kennedy to part of Messiaen’s massive Turangalila Symphony, plus vocal acrobatics from Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby McFerrin.
You can read more at the programme by visiting:
Once upon a time …
A video directed by Wai Ho Chui, a pupil of King Edward’s School.
Sunday 23rd June 2019
Ruddock Hall, 16.30
Featuring guest professional musicians:
Joe Thompson, piano (Ivy Club London, ITV’s Daily Show, Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th Birthday party, Prince Charles’ 70th (pretty much the Royal Birthday Pianist!), and his long suffering colleague:
Robert Rickenberg, bass
Plus Senior Swing Band with student vocalists:
and many more:
Tara Desai & Sanjana Sudeshkumar
Priyanka Chaudhuri & Emil Ali
Joe Ward & Shivanii Arun
and even more!
Arun Ramanathan, voice
Nathan Cornish, trombone
Naomi Bazlov, piano & George Roberts, bass
i. Allegro moderato
ii. Adagio di molto
iii. Allegro, ma non tanto
It was in 1903, with his successful second symphony behind him, that the Finnish composer, Sibelius, wrote his violin concerto. It was the only concerto he ever composed and had long been promised to Willy Burmester, a prominent soloist of the day. Sibelius was himself a violin virtuoso and described as a “genius” by one of his teachers in Helsinki. However, he appeared to have lost confidence and it was not without regret that he accepted his future as a composer rather than a violinist. This concerto was written during one of the most turbulent periods of his life where he was a heavy drinker and had mounting debts. His wife had regularly to seek him out and take him from the fashionable clubs and bars of Helsinki to encourage him to work on the score. Once completed, he could not afford to fly Burmester to Finland to perform the piece and therefore he asked the Czech violinist Victor Nováček to play it. However, Nováček was not equal to the technical challenges of the work and the concerto met with incomprehension and disapproval; one critic of the time writing, “a red-faced and perspiring Nováček fought a losing battle with a solo part that bristled with … great difficulties.” After the lacklustre debut, Sibelius revised and condensed the work and Burmester again offered to play it, writing, “All of my twenty-five years’ stage experience, my artistry and insight will be at the service of this work … I shall play the concerto in Helsinki in such a way that the city will be at your feet.” However, Sibelius’ German publisher wanted Karl Halir, a violinist and the concertmaster in Berlin, to undertake the solo part and Sibelius agreed. Burmester was understandably outraged and vowed never to play the work, a promise which he kept. The revised version was heard in 1905, Richard Strauss conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.
Despite the frailties displayed by Sibelius in his personal life, there are no signs of weakness in the concerto. That said, there is certainly Nordic melancholy, and powerful emotions are expressed throughout. The concerto follows the classical tradition and retains the usual three-movement form. The soloist takes charge from the beginning of the expansive first movement with a long lyrical paragraph which is beautifully shaped over the tapestry of the accompanying divided violins. The second theme is impassioned, initially appearing in the orchestra, anticipated by the bassoons and clarinets, and taken up by the solo part. This is followed by the orchestra’s introduction of a third thematic idea. Sibelius replaces the development section with a solo cadenza and this is followed by a recapitulation. An aching nostalgia is displayed in the three-part second movement, a woodwind introduction with a melody in thirds preparing for the broad, singing theme of the solo violin. The mood changes dramatically at the opening of the third and final movement which is a restless scherzo in rondo form. Over the rhythmic ostinato of the orchestra, the virtuosity of the violin is displayed most clearly, often in the violin’s highest range and the strong march-like tune passes back and forth between violin and orchestra. Its dance-like energy prompted the British musicologist, Donald Francis Tovey, to describe it as a “polonaise for polar bears.” However, this was clearly not intended to be derogatory as he went on: “In the … looser concerto forms invented by Mendelssohn and Schumann, I have not met a more original, a more masterly and a more exhilarating work than the Sibelius violin concerto”.
Charlotte Howdle, Upper Sixths
Some projects are a long time in the making, but often all the more satisfying because of it. Earlier this week I was in Birmingham for the culmination of a glorious, ambitious, beautiful project, hosted by King Edward School and their music teacher/conductor Dr Martin Leigh, music teacher Keith Farr, and embracing seven other schools in the Birmingham area.
With the idea of using story and art in music as an aid to inspire primary school children to compose their own music, I helped develop a book for schools, “Exploring Music through Stories”, full of useful teaching notes. Meanwhile Martin and Keith were actively involved in working directly with schools and teachers to encourage the children to create something wonderful – and they did!
They should be named: Hallmoor (who presented – and charmingly acted – songs from Hansel and Gretel); Bourneville and Tiverton (who offered a fresh look at Peter and the Wolf); Brownmead (who conjured the witch Baba Yaga with a beautifully slavic sounding song); The Oval (I loved their midnight clock for Cinderella!); Elms Farm (Their “Snegurochka” song touched the heart in their version of The Snow Maiden) and Hillstone (who brilliantly used percussion and all kinds of unusual sounds to share the underwater world of Sadko – amazing!). Huge congratulations to them all – it was truly wonderful to witness! all the children, shining with pride and achievement!
Afterwards, in keeping with the Russian Fairy Tale theme, I narrated and illustrated the original version of Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev, plus a couple of extracts from Stravinsky’s Firebird, with the KES symphony orchestra, who played superbly.
But that wasn’t all – there then followed an evening performance of Peter and the Wolf and the full 1919 suite from The Firebird. A pretty full day! For me, the challenge was to learn the narration for Peter and the Wolf and many complicated cues, by heart. As I was illustrating the tale simultaneously, at my easel, it wasn’t possible to use a score, so it all had to be firmly embedded in my memory. Happily I survived both times without mishap, and the lovely warm Birmingham audience made me most welcome.
My thanks to and admiration for Keith and Martin are boundless. The way Martin thanked every single student in the orchestra, as they left the stage, was utterly heartwarming. Also thanks to Sarah Mullen of the brilliant Busy Parents Network, who so ably supported this glorious, unforgettable event. One of the best I’ve ever been involved in.
I’m now looking forward to returning to Birmingham for several Busy Parent Network events at their Bournville Book Fest in March, including another concert, with Birmingham opera singer Abigail Kelly, an event full of art and arias as I accompany her singing with painting! You can find out more here: