(Slightly Tarnished) Silver Strings – Part 3

A couple of weeks ago I started writing a (supposedly) concise history of my violin playing as a way of marking the 25th anniversary of my grade 1 exam, although I soon realised I had missed that actual milestone by a whole year.  I started playing the violin about a year and a half before I took the exam and I’ve continued playing it ever since so, with nearly 28 years of experience under my belt, it’s perhaps not surprising that even a fairly cursory account of it will take up a bit of space.

What started out as a single post quickly split into two parts and then became an entire trilogy.  Hopefully it won’t go the same way as certain other increasingly inaccurately named trilogies and I’ll actually get it finished this time.  Part 1 looked at highlights of my violin playing before I went to university and part 2 explored the non-classical playing I’ve done since then.  This time it’s the turn of  my post-university classical playing.

In fact, pretty much all the classical violin playing I’ve done (not counting stuff done at home for my own amusement and one short performance of Elgar’s Salut d’amour with a friend from church) has been in connection with university groups but, ironically, I didn’t join these until after I’d severed my formal ties with the university.

At one stage, sometime within my first year in Bangor, I formed a string quartet with three student friends from church.  I can’t remember now whether I was playing viola or second violin in that ensemble, but I think it was viola (this would have been just after I got myself a viola and I think that’s what prompted the quartet, as we had two other violinists in the church band and discovered that our bass player also played cello).  Sadly we only got round to having one practice before the year ended and the other three members of the group all graduated and left the area.

I went to a concert just before Christmas 2006 featuring the University of Wales Bangor (now known as Bangor University) Music Society (or MusSoc) Choir and Orchestra.  I was very impressed by the concert but slightly shocked that they had more flutes than violins in the orchestra.  Partly this was because they had a lot of flutes (about 14 as I recall — certainly a lot more than the usual 2 for an orchestra; this was largely due to their policy of allowing more-or-less anyone who wanted to to join, without auditioning for a set number of places) but also because the string section was quite thin on the ground.  I made this observation to a friend of mine who was in the orchestra and the next thing I knew I was invited to join it.  I did so and found myself a member of the first violin section (so, a bit of a promotion from my previous orchestra, although I was still mostly on the back row).

As it happens, I wrote on my (old) blog about my joining the orchestra, so I know both when it happened (12th January 2007 for my first rehearsal) and what we played for our next concert (my first with them): Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture, Schubert’s 8th Symphony (or at least the two movements of it that he actually completed) and his Ave Maria (with a soprano (?) soloist — a lovely girl called Sophie who also played in the second violin section), as well as Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre (with another lovely girl, Pippa, as the violin soloist) and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms (a joint piece with the choir, conducted by my good friend Graeme).  According to a later post on the same blog, the concert itself was on Saturday 21st April 2007 and went pretty well.

Unfortunately, my patchy blogging lets me down as a historical source after that point and I have to rely on my memory for the rest of my brief career with the MusSoc orchestra (incidentally, I think the official spelling may have been “Musoc” or “MuSoc”, but in any case it was universally pronounced as “muzz-sock”, so I think my spelling is better).  I can remember having a break for  a while, possibly just one term or maybe a year or two, but I can’t remember if it was immediately after the first concert or a bit later.

Amongst the other pieces we worked on in my time with the orchestra, the ones I particularly remember include Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture (which I think is what enticed me back after my break, since Beethoven is one of my favourite composers and I was eager to play one of his pieces – it also happened that the conductor was another good friend of mine, called Mark); Vivaldi’s Gloria (another joint piece with the choir); Vaughan-Williams’ Folk Song Suite and his Fantasia on Christmas Carols (the latter in one of our Christmas concerts, unsurprisingly; that was yet another joint piece with the choir); Korngold’s Theme and Variations (my first introduction to the work of this particular composer; bits of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite (I don’t think we did the whole lot) and Khachaturian’s Masquerade.  We also did a suite of music from the film Pirates of the Caribbean, that I remember being much better music than I expected (I also remember the entire percussion section putting on bandannas and eyepatches, to the surprise of the conductor and the great amusement of everyone, when we performed the piece in an end-of-year gala concert).  Finally, I remember doing one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (No. 5 from the Op. 72 set, I think it was) as a test piece for auditioning new conductors.  That turned out, unusually, to be a piece of music that I enjoy listening to much more than trying to play since it sounds great (when played well) but is, to use a technical term, a bit of a bugger to play.

In addition to playing with MusSoc, I had one other orchestral experience (so far) in (fairly) recent years.  I was invited to take part in a spoken (as opposed to fully-acted) production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Mendelssohn’s incidental music that took place in Bangor Cathedral a few years ago, as I happened to know the conductor (a lad called Chris, who had conducted a choir that I once joined for a Christmas carol service — singing bass with a heavy cold) and he was short of violinists.  I forget when this was but it was a few years ago (probably around 2009 or 2010).  Last year, I took part (singing bass again) in a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe, for which my friend Graeme (the conductor of the Chichester Psalms mentioned above) ended up being the accompanist.  He pointed out to me at the time that certain parts of the Iolanthe music (especially the entrance of the fairies at the start of Act I) are a clever pastiche/parody of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music, but it was only the other day, when I listened to the Mendelssohn again for the first time since I played it, that I realised how right he was (and, on reflection, how much the story of Iolanthe borrows from that of Shakespeare too, although it is principally a satire on the British peerage).

It’s been a few years now since I last played any classical music in a group.  I don’t have any immediate plans for further forays in this direction but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out in future.

Multiple Choice

Most classical music that is available in recorded form, unless it is very new or very obscure, is available in several (or sometimes very many) different recordings by different artists (or perhaps by the same artists at different times, which Heraclitus would tell us amounts to much the same thing).  This means that you are usually confronted with a, sometimes bewilderingly wide, choice when shopping for classical music.

My usual approach, unless I’ve heard (or heard about) a particular performance that I want to get, is similar to the way I go about  buying wine – look for something cheap with a nice label.  In the case of music, this translates to nice cover art on the album, although there are some record labels such as Naxos that I’m generally confident will give me  a decent recording towards the lower end of the budget spectrum. If I’m buying online (which is where I do pretty much all my music shopping these days), I’ll also look for reviews and let them help inform my choice.

Fitting in with this relative lack of concern for who is actually performing the music, I find my preference is to fill my classical music library mostly with a wide variety of different pieces rather than getting multiple copies of the same works performed by different artists.  On the other hand, sometimes – more often by accident than design – I do end up with several copies of the same work.

Usually this comes about because I’ve already got a copy of something but the best way I can find to get a copy of something else I want is to get it bundled with the thing I’ve already got.  For instance, I already had a recording of Bach’s Magnificat in D (BWV 243; performed by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford and the  Northern Chamber Orchestra, on the Naxos label; coupled with Vivaldi’s Gloria RV589) but, when I came to look for a recording of his Easter Oratorio (BWV 249), the most attractive option I could find (which probably means the cheapest available that had reasonable reviews) came bundled with another Magnificat performance, this time by the Gabrieli Consort & Players (released on DG Archiv).   The Magnificat happens to be one of my favourite Bach works, and he’s my all-time favourite composer, so it was no great hardship to have two versions of it in my library.

I can only think of two occasions so far when I’ve deliberately acquired a second version of music I’ve already got (excluding things I had on tape, as I’ve tried to replace most of those with CD or MP3 copies for greater convenience).  Both were with the works of Beethoven.

The first was his symphony cycle.  I got a boxed set, mostly performed by the Ljubljana Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Anton Nanut (although two of them are by the Slovak Philharmonic with a couple of different conductors), back in about 1992.  Apart from the opening two chords of the Eroica symphony, which I always felt to be slightly weedy in this version (certainly compared with the lush recording on the old tape I had of it performed, IIRC, by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan), I am perfectly happy with this set.  I’m sure it’s not the definitive Beethoven symphony cycle recording, if such a thing exists, but it’s good enough for me.

However, when I found a copy of Beethven’s symphonies performed by Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players (which I remember watching on TV back in the 1980s, shortly after they were recorded) going for a very reasonable price a few years ago, I snapped them up.  Not only had I (correctly) remembered the Norrington performances as having been excellent but these were pioneers of what, as I recall, was at the time called authentic performance and is now generally referred to as historically informed performance (or HIP) — i.e. they used instruments such as natural trumpets and gut-strung fiddles and aimed to recreate performance practices as they would have been in Beethoven’s own day (such as smaller ensembles and generally faster tempos).  As such, the Norrington recording represented quite a different approach to the works to that taken by the Ljubljana Symphony / Slovak Philharmonic, which stuck to more traditional modern performance practices and instruments (if you’ll forgive the, hopefully intelligible, oxymoron). As a fringe benefit, I also got duplicate copies of 3 of Beethoven’s overtures (Egmont, Coriolan and Prometheus), since these were included in the Norrington set and I already had them on an album of Beethoven overtures performed by Kurt Masur and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

The other work which I purposely bought in two separate versions was Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (Op. 123).  Again I have a “modern-style” recording by Otto Klemperer with the New Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra and a more HIP style one by John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists.  In this case, I can’t remember which one I got first, but I do recall getting the second one as a deliberate contrast to the first.  I enjoy both versions very much, although I’ve not sat down and carefully compared them head to head.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given how much more of their work I have than any other composers, most of the duplicates in my classical music collection come in the works of Bach and Beethoven (my third favourite, and probably third best represented, is Brahms but I don’t think I yet have more than one copy of anything by him).  However, the single most duplicated piece I have is the Mandolin concerto in C, RV425, by Antonio Vivaldi, of which I have three copies (as well as the sheet music – the solo part is actually quite playable).  One is by Musici di San Marco (dir.  Alberto Lizzio), on a budget label CD of Vivaldi concertos on authentic instruments that I picked up years ago.  Another is by Il Giardino Armonico on a collection of Vivaldi’s mandolin and lute concertos (or rather, concertos featuring those instruments), which I got last year mainly for the Concerto in G for 2 mandolins, RV 532 (when I was getting more seriously into mandolin playing) and the final version came on the CD accompanying the book The Complete Mandolinist by Marilynn Mair (an excellent tutor book, somewhat biased towards classical mandolin playing, and also the source of my sheet music for the Vivaldi concerto).

It is certainly good to listen to different versions of the same piece from time to time, in order to hear different nuances of the music brought out by the different interpretations.  As they say in France, vive la difference!

(Slightly Tarnished) Silver Strings

Unless I am much mistaken, today is the 26th anniversary of me taking my violin grade 1 exam (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) [I had thought it was the 25th anniversary, but then I realised that 10th April 1987, which I’m fairly sure was the big day, was actually 26 years ago, not 25].  This was the only practical music exam I ever took (unless you count the performance part of GCSE music, which I suppose should really count), although I did start working towards my grade 3 and grade 5 violin exams on several occasions and did take theory grade 5, largely in preparation for doing the higher grade violin exams.

Although I haven’t got a huge collection of certificates to say that I can play, I do have quite a bit of experience and I have gained a lot of pleasure (and hopefully given some pleasure and not too much pain to other people) through playing music over the years.

As a way of celebrating this auspicious anniversary, today I have mostly been listening to violin music that I have played (albeit not recordings of my own performances), in roughly chronological order of when I first approached them.

First up on the playlist was Vivaldi’s Violin concerto opus 3, no. 6 (RV358) in A minor.  The first movement of this was my solo piece for my GCSE music performance exam and I think I also played it once in a school concert. As far as I can remember, I’ve never performed the other two movements, although I have played them all many times and I still like to dig the piece out and play it from time to time.  One day I’d love to play it with piano accompaniment again (as it appears in the edition I have), or perhaps even with a full string orchestra (as it was written).

The next piece I listened to this morning was Dvořák’s Sonatina op. 100 in G (for violin and piano), which was, I think, the next piece I studied in violin lessons after the Vivaldi concerto.  My biggest solo public performance to date was when I played the final movement of this piece in front of an audience of (IIRC) about 1000 people at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford.  That performance wasn’t helped when, a few bars into the piece, my accompanist stopped,  announced that his page turner had failed to turn up and waited for someone to step in to fulfil that vital role.  I was a  bit miffed, not least because I had to turn my own pages anyway (although to be fair, I only had one page turn with a fairly conveniently located multi-bar rest, compared to the pianist’s many page turns in mid-flow). Were the same thing to happen today I’d probably keep the audience entertained with a selection of jaunty jigs or something but, at the time, I didn’t think of that (and I’m not sure I knew any jigs then anyway) so I just stood like a lemon on the stage for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only  a minute or two.  By the time we restarted the piece I was so nervous that I was painfully aware of an unscheduled tremolando in my bowing, although I gather it wasn’t too obvious to most of the audience (and at least I managed to avoid dropping the bow altogether).

The final major piece I studied in my violin lessons, although I don’t think I ever publicly performed any of it, was Bach’s Violin concerto in E, BWV1042, which was my first introduction to playing Bach (apart from one small keyboard minuet) and probably what got me hooked on listening to him too.  I’ve subsequently spent quite a lot of time on his cello suites, mostly in an arrangement for viola though I’ve also played some of them on violin, and I have a sheet music copy of his solo violin sonatas and partitas too, which represent a considerable challenge to my violin playing abilities (but also a lot of fun and some moments of sublime ecstasy).  As with the Vivaldi and Dvořák pieces, I still like to dig the Bach violin concerto out and give it a bash from time to time.

Speaking of challenging music, I also have a copy of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for solo violin, Op. 1, which is probably one of the hardest violin works out there.  My final violin teacher had a copy and played several of them for me, which inspired me (in a moment of what I can only describe as either blind optimism or pure wishful thinking) to get my own copy.  I can just about manage a few of the simpler passages, including bits of Caprice no. 5 (my personal favourite, not least because a guitar version – or at least something very similar sounding – was featured in the epic guitar duel at the end of the film Crossroads) and the theme and the first couple of variations from no. 24 (the famous one, also well-known as the theme from the South Bank Show, which happens to be another of my favourites, mainly because I can actually play some of it) but I don’t hold any serious hope of ever actually being able to play them properly.

During my sixth form years, I joined my first proper orchestra (which is not to denigrate my school orchestra, which was pretty good in its own fairly limited way): The Crockenhill String Orchestra.  I was one of the back row second violins in this august ensemble.  I can no longer remember precise details of most of what we played but the one that sticks most vividly in my mind is Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K525.  I remember this mainly due to a concert in a church in, I think, Farningham on a dark and stormy night when we were hit by a power cut just as we approached the end of the first movement; this plunged us into total darkness (apart from occasional flashes of lightning) and caused about half of the orchestra to grind to a halt while the rest of us valiantly struggled on to finish the movement from memory. After this, there was a short pause while we dug out candles to illuminate the rest of the concert. I remember thinking, as we played the remaining movements of the Mozart, how well the music seemed to fit with the setting of a candle-lit stone building (which my imagination transformed from a small church into a vast gothic castle) with a storm raging outside.  I also remember playing Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite, which I think I remember just because I particularly liked some of the tunes in it rather than for any notable performance-related incidents.  On the other hand, I do recall one particular tuning-related fail (in a piece I can’t remember, though I’ve a feeling it was a (piano?) concerto with a guest soloist, performed somewhere up in London) when, shifting down to first position from on high (yes, even second violinists sometimes have to play up the neck!), my thumb accidentally caught the tuning peg of my G string and knocked it completely out of tune.

Since my potted history of my violin playing is turning out to take  a rather larger pot than anticipated (this already being my longest blog post to date, as far as I can remember, and me not yet having started on my university years, let alone what came after), I’ve decided to split it across several posts.  The next installment should follow fairly shortly.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering how I did in the exam, I passed with distinction (just about) – gaining 131 out of 150 marks, just one more than the minimum required for a distinction.  As it happens, I also blogged (a day late) about the 20th anniversary of this exam, 6 years ago (obviously!).  I also blogged some of my thoughts about Bach’s music (specifically the solo violin/cello stuff that I’ve played) on that blog.

The Marmite Man of Music

Without a doubt, one of my favourite 21st century composers is Karl Jenkins. Admittedly, I have not listened to very much recent classical music (as my interests generally lie somewhat earlier) and I’m also slightly biased because Jenkins is a composer from my adopted homeland of Wales.  Still, I very much enjoy listening to his work.

I was intrigued recently when I came across a description of Jenkins as “the  Marmite Man of Music”.  Apparently this appellation was first used in an article in the Times in March 2008.  Unfortunately you have to be a Times subscriber to be able to access this original article, so I haven’t had a chance to read it.  I did find a reference to it in a Telegraph article by Julian Lloyd Webber in April 2008, which is readable without a subscription.

Anyone from the UK or familiar with our culture will almost certainly understand the reference to Marmite, but for the benefit of anyone else reading this I should expain that this food product (a dark brown, salty paste made from a yeast extract that is a by-product of beer brewing) is famous for polarising people into two opposite camps – those who think it’s the best thing since sliced bread (as well as being especially good on sliced, and toasted, bread) and those who think it’s absolutely gross.  Indeed, the marketing slogan for Marmite in the UK is “Love it or hate it”, which was presumably inspired by and, in turn, helps to perpetuate the myth of Marmite as a foodstuff with no middle ground on the enjoyment scale.

I call it a myth since, in fact, many people (myself included) actually quite like Marmite but are not absolutely wild about it.  There are rare occasions when I get a strong craving for a bit of Marmite on toast, but in general I’m happy to eat it or to do without it.  Nevertheless, Marmite remains a handy substance to use figuratively to refer to other things that tend to (or are believed, however erroneously, to) polarise opinion.

As far as I could make out, not having read the article itself, the Times critic behind the original article was fairly firmly in the “hate it” camp when it comes to Jenkins as musical Marmite.  I got the impression that his dislike essentially stemmed from the fact that Jenkins sold “too many” CDs, so I suspect there was a bit of musical snobbery going on (and I can’t say that I’ve never found myself assuming that if something is sufficiently popular it must be naff, so I probably shouldn’t cast too many stones).

Certainly, Jenkins does tend to blend Western classical music with elements of world music (mostly Middle Eastern and some Celtic folk music in the pieces I’ve heard), so his music may not float the boat of classical purists.  To me, however, this mixture is one of the attractions of the music, along with the fact that the vocal stuff (and most of the Jenkins repertoire I’ve heard includes singing) is in an eclectic mixture of languages. By and large, the harmonies (at least for the more classical bits) are fairly conventionally tonal and relatively easy on the ear compared to a lot of modern classical music).  I understand that, before his career as a composer took off, Jenkins was a jazz and jazz-rock musician (playing oboe in addition to the more common jazz instruments of saxophone and piano), but I’ve not really noticed any jazz influences in his compositions.

My first encounter with Jenkins’ music, or at least the first time I was aware of who he was, was with his Stabat Mater (2008), which I mentioned the other day.  I think it was about two years ago I first heard that, having asked for it for Christmas after having read about it somewhere and being intrigued at the promised mix of languages and blending of musical styles.  Since then I have also listened to some of the music from his Adiemus project (mostly Adiemus IV: The Eternal Knot (2001), which is the only Adiemus album I have a copy of), This Land of Ours (2007 – an album recorded with a brass band and a male-voice choir and featuring a mix of Jenkins’ own compositions and his arrangements of other works) and most recently (this morning, in fact, for the first time) The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace (1999).

This last piece is, I gather, similar to Benjamin Britten’s famous War Requiem (a piece I haven’t heard for years, though I would like to get hold of a copy) in that both are essentially anti-war pieces combining the traditional texts of the Catholic mass (the requiem mass in Britten’s case, the ordinary of the mass for Jenkins) with other texts (some of Wilfred Owen’s poems for Britten and a mixture of sources for Jenkins).  One of Jenkins’ sources (and the inspiration for the name of the work) was L’homme armé, a 15th century French folksong that was incorporated into many medieval (and some later) settings of the mass.

On reflection, I think that “the Marmite Man of Music” is not a bad description of Karl Jenkins from the standpoint of my own appreciation of his music since, like Marmite, I enjoy it every now and then but it wouldn’t feature near the very top of my list of favourites.  On the other hand, that would also be a fair description of most other composers (or foods, for that matter).