I had a pleasant surprise at a gig I was playing at last night, as it turned out that one of my favourite Welsh singers was also on the programme.

The gig in question was a charity event down in Criccieth and I was there to play trombone with the Menai Bridge Intermediate Brass Band during the interval. The main programme included a couple of choirs, a most excellent piano/harp duo (I particularly enjoyed their renditions of Summertime and a couple of Scott Joplin rags), two fine opera singers (established tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones, who looked disconcertingly like my old friend Richard Burton (not the famous explorer or the famous actor), and up-and-coming soprano Alys Roberts) and the aforementioned singer (and also poet) Gwyneth Glyn, who is apparently a resident of Criccieth.

Gwyneth only did a couple of short sets in the concert, but one of them included her song Adra, which is one of my favourite songs. Here’s a link to a youtube video of the song, complete with a handy translation of the lyrics in case you don’t happen to speak Welsh (don’t be fooled by the first verse, which is mostly quotations of English-language songs, although I love the way there’s a Welsh one – Dwi’n mynd yn ôl i Blaenau Ffestiniog (I’m going home to Blaenau Ffestiniog) by the band Y Tebot Piws (The Purple Teapot) – thrown in).

I almost got a chance to speak to her in the interval (after we’d finished playing) but I was overcome by a bout of shyness and didn’t quite manage to pluck up the courage. After the gig (and having made the mistake of mentioning my earlier failure to Hannah, the conductor of my band, who then more or less frog-marched me over to her before standing by to watch me squirm) I made another attempt but that time was thwarted by my own politeness, as she was busy talking to other people and I didn’t want to butt in and didn’t get any natural openings to start talking to her before my lift was ready to depart.

This paragraph is addressed to Gwyneth Glyn on the unlikely event that she should ever stumble across my blog (and is more or less what I was planning say to her at the gig though, apart from the final sentence, not in Welsh as I had been intending): The bloke with the big beard who was loitering near you after the gig last night (that is, 9th December 2016 in Criccieth) would like to thank you for your delightful music and especially the beautiful song “Adra” which has been a favourite ever since he first heard it several years ago. He hopes that if the two of you should happen to cross paths again he may actually manage to talk to you. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 🙂

This post is dedicated both to Gwyneth Glyn and to my dear friend and conductor Hannah Retallick (who, after commiserating with me on my failure to talk to Gwyneth suggested I should blog about my near-encounter with her instead).

Addendum: A short while after posting the original version of this and reading Hannah’s encouraging feedback on Facebook (I forgot to mention that she’s also an aspiring writer as well as a fine musician), I was inspired to write a short poem to commemorate the events of last night. Somehow it seems appropriate, since Gwyneth Glyn is herself (as I said) a poet as well as a musician. This one’s a bit rough and ready, but I kind of like it as it stands (including the deliberate lack of punctuation and variable line length). So here it is, my “Memoir of meeting but not quite talking to Gwyneth Glyn in Criccieth, 9th December 2016”:

All I want to do
Is to talk to you
To say hello
To let you know
That I really like your song
But the words might come out wrong
So I stand and wait
Until it’s too late
Then home I go
And you’ll never know

I actually started off thinking of that (or at least a bit of it) as a potential song lyric and I may yet turn it into a song, but I’d probably have to regularise the meter a bit to do that, so maybe I won’t. Also, it occurs to me (after the fact – it certainly wasn’t a conscious thought when I wrote it) that the penultimate line is quite appropriate since my favourite Gwyneth Glyn song (and hence the one I allude to earlier in my poem) is “Adra”, which is the Welsh word for home.

Sweet suite sounds

Perhaps the best sheet-music purchase I ever made was a copy of Bach’s 6 suites for solo cello, arranged for viola.

As I recall, I bought this music about 15 years ago, shortly after I’d acquired a viola. That particular instrument purchase came about, I think, largely because a handful of friends (two other violinists and a cellist) and I wanted to form a string quartet and I was the most willing of the violinists to take up the viola (or perhaps I just wanted an excuse to buy a new toy). The quartet only lasted for about one rehearsal, but my viola has given me (and occasionally others) many hours of enjoyment over the years since then.

I’m not sure if I was at all familiar with the cello suites before I got the music for them, although I was certainly already very keen on the music of Johann Sebastian “Mighty” Bach (as he’s called by Organ Morgan in Under Milkwood). I have also got a copy of the sheet music for Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas, but I find the cello suites much closer to being within my technical range. In fact, if I had to choose just one instrument and one set of music to take with me to a desert island, my viola and the cello suites would be a strong contender.

Over the years I have mostly played suites 1 and 3, as these were the ones I found most accessible (largely, I suspect, because they were in relatively friendly keys – G major and C major respectively – and written for a standard cello (or viola) in standard tuning), and I can play the majority of both these suites fairly well. I’ve more or less got the hang of playing suites 2 and 4 (in D minor and Eb major) as well, though I’m somewhat less familiar with those. However, I’ve barely attempted the final two suites.

Suite 6 (in D major) was originally written, as far as can be made out, for a 5-stringed piccolo cello with an extra E string above the usual four (CGDA), and while it’s possible to play it on a standard instrument it goes uncomfortably high. Apparently it’s not too bad on a modern cello, but it is a bit more awkward on the viola especially, if, like me, you’re not too fond of playing in higher positions. (Incidentally, that reminds me of my favourite viola joke, which happens to be in German and is sadly just about impossible to make funny in translation.) My edition does include a version transposed into G major, which puts it into an easier range, but even so I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to play it all the way through – though I intend to give it a try sometime soon. One day, perhaps, I’ll get myself a 5-string fiddle and be able to tackle it in the original key.

The problem with suite 5 (in C minor) is different in that it is written for a standard four-stringed instrument but calls for a non-standard tuning. In classical parlance, this is called scordatura, whereas the same idea also crops up in many folk fiddle traditions and is sometimes known there as cross-tuning. I have a handful of fiddle tunes I tend to play in various cross tunings (usually ADAE, AEAE or sometimes AEAC#) but I’ve never really attempted to play classical music in scordatura tunings. The one called for by this cello suite is to drop the pitch of the highest string by a tone (giving CGDG). Other scordatura tunings I can think of for classical pieces are the solo violin in Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (dropping the E string to Eb; though I’ve only ever played the orchestral 1st violin part myself, which is in standard tuning) and the solo viola part of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, which is written in D (with all the strings tuned up a semitone for a more brilliant tone), against the orchestra and solo violin playing in Eb.

There are, as far as I can make out, two basic purposes for scordatura tunings (and, equally, for cross tunings in the folk world). One is to facilitate playing chords etc. that would be more difficult in the standard tuning. The other is to give a different tone quality, either by allowing more open strings to resonate with the notes being played on other strings or just by virtue of having some or all strings pitched higher or lower than normal (or by a combination of both). In the cases where I’ve seen folk tunes notated for playing in cross-tunings, the notes have generally been written at pitch and it’s been up to the performer to adjust the fingering to fit the tuning of the strings (which is not too difficult for the relatively straightforward tunes that usually occur in this context). The usual practice for scordatura, by contrast, seems to be to write the notes that you would be playing in standard tuning (with the specific string to be played indicated if it’s not clear from the context). For example in the Bach cello suite, notes above a top-line (in alto clef) A natural are to be played on the A-string unless otherwise noted, and these notes come out a tone lower because you’ve tuned the string down to G. In theory this makes reading quite straightforward, but it does produce some strange looking intervals.

I think it’s largely this disparity between the written notes and the sounded notes that has put me off trying scordatura tuning, since I’m not averse to retuning my fiddle (or banjo / guitar) strings in general. Therefore I’m not sure that until yesterday I’ve ever actually tried playing the original version of Bach’s 5th suite. As with no. 6, my edition includes a version for standard tuning and I’ve given that a shot a few times but always found it relatively awkward to play and not all that wonderful sounding compared to the first four suites (although I’ve always enjoyed listening to recordings of the 5th suite just as much, if not more than the others).

Yesterday I finally got round to trying the scordatura version of suite 5 and was pleasantly surprised both at how easy it was to play (both to wrap my head round the gap between the fingerings and the pitches and to reach many of the chords and runs that I’d previously found very awkward in the other version of this suite) and how good it sounded – with the lowered string and some fuller chords giving it a wonderfully rich, resonant sound. It’s going to take a fair amount of practice to get some of the trickier bits up to speed but I can see this one becoming my favourite of the cello suites to play as well as to listen to.

I can’t recall there being any other pieces in my library of violin or viola music that call for scordatura tuning and which I’ve therefore been avoiding playing but if I do come across any in future I certainly won’t shy away from giving them a shot (at least if they call for lowering the pitch of the strings – I’m always more nervous about tuning strings above pitch than below).

Delight in the details

It is sometimes said that the devil is in the detail, usually when something that seems on the face of it to be simple turns out to contain some hidden complexity.

According to Wikipedia this actually derives from an earlier saying – God is in the detail – which indicates that details are important and whatever you do should be done thoroughly.

Sometimes, however, I think that it is delight that awaits in the details, especially if it’s in a work of art (in the broadest sense of the term) that you are contemplating.

This thought came to my mind this evening as I was listening to the Tweed Album by Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer, my favourite exponent of the wonderful genre of chap hop.

This is one of his albums that I got relatively recently and I am therefore less familiar with it than with his first two albums, which I’ve had for somewhat longer. Still, I have listened to it at least half a dozen times in the last couple of years. Tonight, though, I heard (or at least noticed) for the first time a particular line in the song Summertime (nothing to do with the Gershwin classic of that name) that rather tickled my fancy:

“All the young people on their field telephones, updating their stati so they don’t feel alone”

The thing that I found delightful about this was the use of stati instead of the generally accepted statuses as the plural of status, clearly and deliberately playing on the Latin origin of the word (as stati is the nominative plural form in Latin, while in English it gets the standard plural treatment). Not, I admit, a particularly earth-shattering detail but quite amusing to me and a nice example of how you can pick up on little details of things long after you become basically familiar with them.

I wonder what other delights await me on further acquaintance with the works of Mr. B. (As a partial answer, while I was finishing this post, another delightful phrase cropped up in one of the songs on the same album: “Butter my muffin” — an expression of surprise that I think will have to adopt into my own idiolect.)

Ringing the Changes

Happy New Year!

I don’t usually bother making new year’s resolutions but I do sometimes like to set myself a few informal goals for the coming year. Last year, I had a few opera-related goals. One was to see a live opera, which I didn’t manage to achieve, although I’m more likely to manage it now that our local theatre has reopened (as of December) and is promising occasional operas amongst its programme. Another was to start exploring the Russian opera repertoire (the source of my first two encounters with live opera back in the early 1990s) — I succeeded in revisiting both of the Russian operas I’d seen live: Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges; I also listened to Eugene Onegin (another Tchaikovsky work and possibly the most popular Russian opera in the world) and I look forward to watching it on DVD soon (along with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, another of the “great” Russian operas).

My big goal, though, was to properly acquaint myself with Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle. This is a story (based on Teutonic mythology) spread out over four operas, lasting a grand total of about 15 hours, so it’s not for the faint-hearted. Indeed, Wagner’s music, and the Ring cycle in particular, seems to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it kind of things, sort of the Marmite of the music world (apologies to any non-British readers who quite possibly have no idea what I mean by that reference, though the Wikipedia link should help you).

Previously, I had been familiar with the Ride of the Valkyries, which is probably known to just about everybody in the Western world although most (myself included, until very recently) would likely not be able to tell you that it is the music which opens Act 3 of Die Walküre (the second opera in the cycle – the English translation of the name is “The Valkyries”, so it’s probably not too surprising that it’s in this one) or that the main theme from it crops up again quite a few other times within the cycle (in fact, as far as I could spot, it first appeared at the start of Act 2 of the same opera, though in a less developed form) and a couple of years ago (before I started to get properly into opera) I got a CD of orchestral music by Wagner which turned out to consist of preludes and other instrumental sections from his operas (apparently he composed very little else).

When I started to explore opera, I got a couple of compilation albums (one with a book attached). One of these included the Immolation Scene from the end of Götterdämerung (the final opera in the cycle; actually, this scene is the very last one of the whole cycle). I enjoyed this (and the instrumental stuff from my earlier CD) enough to want to listen to more.

Round about November 2014, I got a DVD of highlights of the Ring, purporting to tell the essential story through extracts from the operas, leaving out much of the padding (of which there is a lot in the Ring cycle – albeit largely set to wonderful music) and bringing the runtime down from about 15 hours to a much more manageable 100 minutes. These extracts were taken from a cycle staged by a Spanish group called La Fura dels Baus, with lots of exciting stage lighting and acrobatics to complement the music. I rather enjoyed watching this and it led to my decision, when considering operatic goals for 2015, to aim to see or hear the whole cycle.

I acquired my first (and so far only) complete Ring cycle on DVD last January, as I managed to find a well-acclaimed one (the Barenboim-Kupfer one from Bayreuth, c. 1992) going for a very reasonable price (about £15, which works out at £1/hour). Before plunging into this, though, I picked up a couple of CDs of highlights, one conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the other by George Solti (both, I gather, did multiple Ring cycle recordings and I don’t recall which ones I’ve got – basically whichever had highlight albums available nice and cheap).  I also had a look at a couple of Wagner’s other operas – Der Fliegende Holländer (aka the Flying Dutchman, suitable for my growing interest in sailing and things maritime last year, not to mention a fairly manageable 2 hours or so; I have watched a DVD version and listened to an audio one) and Tristan und Isolde (a 4+ hour mammoth, but at least there’s only one opera to sit through; this one I’ve only listened to so far, though at least one Wagner-specialist music critic describes this as “the ideal gramophone opera” in any case).

Though I was now feeling ready to tackle the full Ring cycle, I decided that I wanted to watch the operas, at least for the first time, together in one block rather than spread out across several weekends. The first opportunity to do so didn’t come until this week, when I was able to make use of a few days off work between Christmas and the new year to watch the operas on consecutive days, starting on Tuesday 29th December.  In fact, I ended up starting Götterdämerung a bit later than intended last night and, as it’s quite long and I was falling asleep (because I’d been out late at a New Year’s party the previous night, not because the music’s boring) I decided to postpone the final scene (the aforementioned Immolation Scene) until this morning so that I could better appreciate it.

Watching the Ring cycle was, in some ways, quite different from most other operas, but I found it a very enjoyable experience and one I’d like to repeat (though next time I probably won’t be so concerned about watching all the operas so close together).  If I get a chance to snap up any other versions of the Ring at sensible prices I may well do so (e.g. a more traditionally staged one, or perhaps the complete version of the Fura dels Baus one I mentioned earlier, which is even less traditional than the Kupfer-Barenboim one), though I’ll also be happy to enjoy this version again (and perhaps one or two audio recordings too). And I’d love to experience a live performance of the Ring cycle, in the unlikely event that I ever get a chance to do so.

I mentioned that the Ring is a bit like operatic Marmite.  In a sense I think this is quite an appropriate simile, not least because both are supposed to be things you either love or hate but in both cases I find myself somewhat towards the love end of the spectrum but not absolutely wild about it.  There will be times when Wagner is just the thing I want to listen to, and other times when I’m more in a mood for, say, Rossini, just like there are times when I want marmite on my toast and other times when I want marmalade (perhaps made with Seville oranges).

So much for a quiet summer

August is usually one of the quieter months for me, as most of my regular activities take a summer break.  I love this opportunity to live life at a slightly more relaxed pace for a few weeks, especially as September (along with December) tends to be one of the busiest months.

This year, however, my August seems to be quite busy, especially in contrast to the last couple of months.  In particular, I have quite a few gigs – almost as many, in fact, as I’ve had so far this year.

On average, I probably have about two gigs a month, and that pretty much amounts to some months with no gigs at all and some with 3 or 4, but rarely more than 5.  This month I have a grand total of 9 gigs, with two (or three, depending how you count) different bands.

The August gigging calendar started last Saturday, playing bass (or tuba, as it’s known outside the brass band context) with the Menai Bridge Brass Band at the National Eisteddfod (a Welsh cultural phenomenon that you can google for yourself if you don’t already know about it).  This was a competition, with 5 bands competing in our section.  We came 3rd but, more importantly, we felt that we put in a very good performance.   The first two pieces (out of our programme of 5) were televised on S4C; we start about 39 minutes into the programme and the clip should be available to view until about the end of August.  I found it particularly interesting to watch that clip, as the pieces sound completely different when heard from outside the band than when you’re hearing them from in the middle of the action.

My second gig was on Sunday evening with the Rice Hooligan Orchestra – my “demented Western Swing” trio, with whom I play upright bass (we don’t currently have a website).  We were playing for a hog roast at the Marram Grass café in Newborough, one of our favourite venues and the site of most of our recent gigs.  We’ll be back there on Sunday 30th August (probably from about 7pm) so if you happen to be in the area you may like to drop in and see us; I’m not sure how much it costs to participate in the hog roast (as performers, we get it for free) but it’s excellent food to go with, hopefully, pretty good music.

This coming Saturday will be my busiest day musically, as I have two separate gigs.  In the morning I’ll be playing trombone with the Menai Bridge Intermediate Brass Band at an event in Pentraeth (I think it’s their village fair) and then in the afternoon I’ll be heading off to the Conwy valley to play for a wedding party with the Rice Hooligan Orchestra.  On Sunday afternoon, I’ll be out with the Menai Bridge Intermediate Band again, this time at a First World War memorial concert in Menai Bridge.

The rest of the month’s gigs are all with the Rice Hooligan Orchestra.  One of them is, like this Saturday’s wedding, a private party (towards the end of the month).  The others are both public gigs – one is at Y Fricsan in Cwm-y-Glo (near Llanberis) on Friday 14th and the other is at The George in Bethesda on Saturday 15th.  I’m not yet sure of the exact details of either gig but if you’re up for coming along to one of them, give me a shout and I’ll try to find out for you.

I’m anticipating that September will be a fairly busy month, as usual.  On the gig front, though, it’s likely to be considerably quieter than August; so far I don’t have any gigs lined up for September and I certainly don’t expect to get anywhere near 9 of them!

A tale of two barbers

If I were asked to name my favourite opera, I’d have a hard time picking one. However, there are some that would definitely make the shortlist, including Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (the Barber of Seville).

Apparently I’m not alone in assessing this to be a fine opera as it is one of the most popularly performed operas in the world (Operabase lists it at #8 in its list of the top 50 operas, by number of performances worldwide between the 2009/10 and the 2013/14 season).

As it happens, this was one of the first operas I explored when I started to get interested in the genre about a year ago, and was the first one for which I watched or listened to several different performances.

I also did a certain amount of background reading about Il Barbiere and, amongst other things, discovered that Rossini was not the first person to set this story, based on the play Le Barbier de Séville by Pierre Beaumarchais, as an opera.  The play appeared in 1775, as the first part of a trilogy, the second being Le Mariage de Figaro (the Marriage of Figaro) which was very quickly set as an opera – Le nozze di Figaro – by Mozart (also one of the world’s, and my own, favourite operas) and the third being La Mère coupable (The Guilty Mother), which as far as I know has been turned into at least a couple of operas but none of them particularly successful.

Rossini’s version of Il Barbiere (which came out in 1816, about 40 years after the original play) caused quite a stir because there was already an opera of the same name, and based on the same play though using a different libretto, by Giovanni Paisiello. This had appeared in 1782 (i.e. within 7 years of the play) and was still immensely popular by the time Rossini got there.  Although Paisiello is now a somewhat obscure composer he was, by all accounts, quite a pop star in his own time and it was considered rather impertinent of Rossini to try encroaching on his territory (Paisiello died a few months after Rossini’s opera appeared; I couldn’t find any reference to his own reaction to Rossini’s work but his fans apparently rioted).  In fact, to start with, Rossini’s version struggled to gain a foothold while Paisiello’s remained tremendously popular.  Gradually, though, the popularity of Rossini’s opera increased while that of Paisiello’s waned.

Naturally enough, on hearing about Paisiello’s Barbiere, I was keen to hear it for myself.  I recently managed to track down a very reasonably priced audio recording of it and I enjoyed listening to it.  While it doesn’t ascend to the heights of operatic genius that Rossini achieves several times in his version, it is more than competently put together (at least from a musical perspective – I didn’t pay too much attention to the libretto so I can’t judge it dramatically) and pleasant to listen to.  I’d certainly be keen to see it performed (either live or on DVD) if I get a chance, though I probably wouldn’t want to make space for another audio recording (or more than one video one) in my library.

There is a certain ironic justice in Paisiello’s Barbiere having been eclipsed by Rossini’s later version because he himself had previously attempted (I’m not sure how deliberately, or with how much success) to do much the same to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi with La Serva Padrona.  This was a short comic opera that Pergolesi had written (c. 1733) as a pair of intermezzos to break up the acts of his long opera seria, Il prigionier superbo, and had become vastly popular (while Il prigionier fairly quickly faded into relative obscurity); it is seen by many as “the quintessential piece that bridges the gap from the Baroque to the Classical period” (to quote Wikipedia – it’s not clear whether that’s just within the scope of opera or of music more generally).  Paisiello wrote a version, using (I think) the same libretto as Pergolesi but a much more modern musical style, in about 1781 (i.e. shortly before his Barbiere).  I’ve listened to both Pergolesi’s and Paisiello’s versions of La Serva Padrona and enjoyed them both; stylistically there is a much greater gap between them than between Paisiello and Rossini (though even there the two are noticeably different – Paisiello’s Barbiere is perhaps unsurprisingly more reminiscent of his near-contemporary Mozart than of Rossini) so they are quite hard to compare.



Lo, Star-led chieftains!

This weekend has seen the start of my Christmas gigs with the Menai Bridge Brass Band for this year (the band actually started its season with another gig last week, but I wasn’t needed for that one).

Last night the senior band played for the RNLI Carol Service in Trearddur Bay, which has been an annual fixture on the band’s calendar for quite a few years (I gather), although this is the first time I’ve been able to make the gig — this is my third Christmas with the band but I had prior commitments for the past two years. As well as a handful of presentation items by the band, we played for about half of the carols. A pianist played for the others, which meant we got to sing along.

One of the interesting features of the evening was that when we sang O come, all ye faithful we did several verses that I haven’t sung for very many years. This carol is one of my favourites of the perennial classic carols that get dragged out every year (and, indeed, at almost every carol service or carol singing/playing gig that takes place through the season) but is usually only sung with 3 verses, or 4 on Christmas Day (or any other time that you feel like singing “Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning”, though it’s traditional to omit that verse on other days) and as far as I can make out these are the translations of the verses originally written in Latin (probably) by John Francis Wade in the mid 18th century.

There are, however, several other verses which sometimes get sung (though not usually in the musical circles in which I move). We did 3 of these, along with the 3 standard non-Christmas-Day verses, last night. My favourite of them is one which begins “Lo, star-led chieftains” and I like it especially for that very phrase, which has a nice ring to it.

In general, I think the standard 3 or 4 verses make the song just about the right length and they are definitely the 3 or 4 I’d choose out of the 7 or 8 available. Still, it’s nice sometimes to sing a few extra verses if only to introduce a bit of variation.

My Christmas carolling continued (albeit in instrumental-only mode) this morning, when I played with the intermediate band down in the centre of Menai Bridge (making it one of our most local gigs of the year). There were two senior band gigs going on simultaneously, one in Bangor and the other in Llangefni, but there were just about enough other musicians to cover those and I figured the intermediate band (with whom I play semi-regularly anyway) would probably most benefit from my help seeing as they have no other trombone players – apart from the conductor, who is generally busy conducting instead – and there are several other bass players in the senior band (it was nothing to do with the attraction of a gig within walking distance of home and the promise of mince pies!).

The band is actually having a relatively quiet Christmas season this year (probably just as well, as it’s been an epically busy year), although we will be out a handful more times over the next fortnight. I will probably only be taking part in a couple of these gigs — at the Farmers’ Market in Menai Bridge next Saturday with the senior band (another one of our annual fixtures; this one I’ve been able to attend every year since I joined the band) and at a nursing home on the outskirts of Bangor the following afternoon with the intermediate band.