Lightning hits handy conductor

How is it that conductors who are safe hands on the podium (not necessarily a compliment) aren’t necessarily safe hands off it ?

The picture shows Michael Costa (1808-1888).  It’s just a nice pic. No implication that he was “handy” or that his stick technique was a little too grabby.

Original Source: Lightning hits handy conductor


Esa-Pekka Salonen, Wing to Wing, Karawane

Esa-Pekka Salonen, composer, the subject of  the Total Immersion Day at the Barbican, London, in December,which came at a busy time before Christmas, and coincided with Suomi 100 celebrations. Too muchn to take in all at once. Fortunately the Salonen concerts are now on BBC Radio 3 (link here). A great opportunity to hear Salonen’s Wing to Wing (2004) again with Anu and Piia Komsi, for whom the work was conceived.  The Komsi sisters are almost mirror images of each other: both are coloraturas of unusually wide range and vocal agility. They have an instinctive closeness to each other which other pairs of singers can’t quite equal. Symmetry is part of the concept of Wing to Wing, so the Komsis can probably do it better than anyone else.  I heard the UK premiere of the work at the Barbican in May 2006. Over the years, the Komsi sisters  have done it so many times that they’ve grown into it as naturally as if they were part of the organism.
“Wing to wing” is a sailing term  which describes the way sails can  be aligned to maximize wind flow. As the wind changes, the sails move. The interaction between the free flowing breeze and the flat surfaces of the sails controls the movement of the boat. The vessel is sailed by this interplay between nature and machine. Wing to Wing is an “architectural” piece because Salonen employs sound to create a structure within which natural forces can flow. Thus the flurrying lines which suggest the movement of wind, water and light, circulating through the structure, modifying, varying and constantly changing  The architect Frank Gehry’s disguised voice is embedded into the music, adapted so that it becomes part of the “building”. The Komsi sisters’ voices soar and fly, suggesting the sound of seabirds flying in the open air, the percussion below them perhaps representing the urban landscape, often twining as if in spirals. Sometimes their lines are long and searching, as if probing the dimensions of space around them.  And sometimes, the turbulence clears and stillness reigns, sparkling repeated notes against clean, clear woodwinds, before we descend into sonorous depths.  Music as sculpture, almost as tactile as it is aural.  I’ve heard Salonen conduct Wing to Wing and also Jukka-Pekka Saraste.  Sakari Oramo is different to Salonen, but very good because he has an intuitive feeling for the inherent richness of the piece, and the BBCSO now seem to have it in their blood.
More symmetry and spatial awareness in Salonen’s Karawane (2013-14) where the BBC Symphony Chorus joined the BBC SO. Here the symmetry is processional : vaguely exotic timbres, suggesting a caravan weaving its way through some strange landscape.  Steady rhythms give way to swirling chromatic textures. The voices sing rareified cadences that rise and fall, like the movement of caravans pulled by animals.  Tempi pick up, and playful staccato patterns emerge – choppy vocal fragments against pounding brass.  A violin materializes, playing a strange melody, like the song of a sad siren, lost in the desert.  Textures thin out and the pure sound of a flute calls as if into the distance of the night. Rustling sounds, timpani thud ominously and the voices are strange low murmurs which lead to more frenzied passages where the voices shout “Way !”.  Ostinato exclamations in the orchestra, which build up in speed, like an engine jerking into action. Through these changes of pace and rhythm, Salonen progresses the piece so its component parts move as if in formation.    A glorious ending, swaying and waving in wacky waywardness. Conceptually strong and a good piece, yet sparkling with wit and good humour. 
Nicholas Daniel was the soloist in Salonen’s Mimo II (1992) where the oboe “sings” with the winds and brass in the orchestra while the strings swirl round them. Slightly reminiscent of a Stravinsky ballet though the whimsy in the oboe part is quite distinctively Salonen. 

Original Source: Esa-Pekka Salonen, Wing to Wing, Karawane

Oramo and Komsi – Sibelius 2, 7 and Luonnotar Barbican

Perhaps the most intriguing programme in the whole Sibelius series with Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO at the Barbican, London. Three stylistic breakthroughs – Sibelius Symphony no 2 and Symphony no 7  and Luonnotar, with coloratura assoluta Anu Komsi, whose range and vocal flexibility is well suited to the piece. Luonnotar is always a tour de force,  but Komsi topped it off with Aare Merikanto’s Ekho, yet another vocal challenge. Pairing Luonnotar with Ekho was daring indeed. Though the two pieces complement each other well, they are tricky to programme together, given the technical difficulties in the voice parts. But this conductor, orchestra and soloist have worked together so often in this repertoire that they can pull the feat off, and well, too.  They have been busy in recent weeks, with the Sibelius series (see below for links to my reviews of other concerts), with  Soumi 100 and with the Esa-Pekka Salonen Total Immersion at the Barbican which coincided with Finnish Independence week, in which the Komsi twins sang Salonen’s Wing to Wing.  A lot to take on board at one time! Luckily, the Salonen Total Immersion is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 this week.  More about Salonen to come.

So hearing Oramo conduct the BBC SO  in early Sibelius (Symphony no 2), early middle Sibelius (Luonnotar) and late Sibelius (Symphony no 7) brings out the connections between them and throws into higher focus the overall traverse of Sibelius output.The year after Luonnotar, Sibelius was to explore ocean imagery again in The Oceanides, whose Finnish title is Aallottaret, or “Spirit of the Waves”, just as Luonnotar was the Spirit of Nature, tossed by waves.  Luonnotar also marks a rebirth of a kind for Sibelius after the difficult period from which came the dark Symphony no 4. Mahler’s works form a huge, coherent whole, but so too do the works of Sibelius when presented with the intelligence that Oramo has brought to this series. 

Luonnotar was the Spirit of Nature, Mother of the Seas, who existed before creation, floating alone in the universe before the worlds were made “in a solitude of ether”. Descending to earth she swam in its primordial ocean for 700 years. Then a storm blows up and, in torment, she calls to the god Ukko for help. Out of the Void, a duck flies, looking for a place to nest. Luonnotar takes pity and raises her knee above the waters so the duck can nest and lay her eggs. But when the eggs hatch they emit great heat and Luonnotar flinches. The eggs are flown upwards and shatter, but the fragments become the skies, the yolk sunlight, the egg-white the moon, the mottled bits the stars.

The orchestra may play modern instruments and the soprano may wear an evening gown, but ideally they should convey the power of ancient, shamanistic incantation, as if by recreating by sound they are performing a ritual to release some kind of creative force. The Kalevala was sung in a unique metre, which shaped the runes and gave them character, so even if the words shifted from singer to singer, the impact would be similar. Sibelius does not replicate the metre though his phrases follow a peculiar, rhythmic phrasing that reflects runic chant. Instead we have Sibelius’s unique pulse. In my jogging days, I’d run listening to Night Ride and Sunrise, finding the swift, “driving” passages uncommonly close to heart and breathing rhythms. It felt very organic, as if the music sprang from deep within the body. This pulse underpins Luonnotar too, giving it a dynamism that propels it along. They contrast with the big swirling crescendos, walls of sonority, sometimes with glorious harp passages that evoke the swirling oceans.

But it is the voice part which is astounding. Technically this piece is a killer – there are leaps and drops of almost an octave within a single word. When Luonnotar calls out for help, her words are scored like strange, sudden swoops of unworldly sounds supposed to resound across the eternal emptiness. These hint at the wailing, keening style that Karelian singers used. This cannot be sung with any trace of conservatoire-trained artifice: the sounds are supposed to spring from primeval forces. After the duck approaches in a quite delightful passage of dancing notes, the goddess expresses agony for its predicament. Those cries of “Ei! Ei!” – and their echo – sound avant-garde even by modern standards. The breath control required for this must be formidable. Singing over the cataclysmic orchestral climax that builds up from “Tuuli kaatavi, tuuli kaatavi!” must be quite some challenge. The sonorous wall of sound Sibelius creates is like the tsunami described in the text, and the soprano is riding on its crest.

Luonnotar is a complex creature, godlike and childlike at the same time, strong enough to survive eons of floating in ravaged seas, yet gentle enough to cradle a hapless duck. The singer needs to convey that raw primal energy, yet also somehow show the kindness and humour. The sheer physical stamina of singing this tour de force probably accounts for its relative rarity on the concert platform. Luonnotar swam underwater for centuries, so a soprano attempting this must pray for “swimmer’s lungs”. The last passages in the piece are brooding, strangely shaped phrases which again seem to reflect runic chanting, as if the magical incantation is building up to fulfillment. And indeed, when the creation of the stars is revealed, the orchestra explodes in a burst of ecstasy. The singer recounts the wonder, with joy and amazement: “Tähiksi taivaale, ne tähiksi taivaale”. (“They became the stars in the heavens!”). I can just imagine a singer eyes shining with excitement at this point – and with relief, too, that she’s survived! As Erik Tawaststjerna said, “the soprano line is built on the contrast between … the epic and narrative and the atmospheric and magical”.

In his minimalist text, Sibelius doesn’t tell us that  in the Kalevala, Luonnotar goes on to carve out the oceans, bays and inlets and create the earth as we know it, or tell us that she became pregnant by the storm and gave birth later to the first man. But understanding this piece helps to understand Sibelius’s work and personality. Like the goddess, he was struggling with creative challenges and beset by self-doubt and worry. Perhaps through exploring the ancient symbolism of the Kalevala, he was able in some way to work out some ideas: in Luonnotar, you can hear echoes of the great blocks of sound and movement in the equally concise seventh symphony

In each concert in this Oramo/BBCSO Barbican series, other composers have been included for comparison and contrast.  Now, at the end of the run we’re looking ahead to the future. Aare Merikanto (1893-1956) was the son of  Oscar Merikanto (1868-1924), also a composer and a contemporary of Sibelius.  Please read more HERE about mid 20th century Finnish music (Susanna Mälkki/Helsinki Philharmonic in December).  Oramo conducted Aare Merikanto’s Ekho (1922), and Komsi sang.  But enough for now, I’m knackered.  I’ll write about that tommorow .when I have more time.

Other concerts in the Oramo Sibelius series with the BBC SO at the Barbican:

Finland Awakes ! Finnish centenary celebration

Sibelius 4 and 6, Anders Hillborg

Sibelius 3 Ravel Franck and Schmitt

Original Source: Oramo and Komsi – Sibelius 2, 7 and Luonnotar Barbican

Bohuslav Martinů – The Epic of Gilgamesh

New recording of the English version of Bohuslav Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh, from Supraphon, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Manfred Honeck.  This is the world  premiere recording of the text in English. Martinů, wrote the original based on an English language translation which he disliked, for pragmatic purposes. “Nowhere would they sing my piece in Czech”, he told his family in 1955.  He need not have worried.  Soon after, a Czech translation became available, which, to this date has been the standard version used in performance, with several fine recordings.  The piece is recognized as one of Martinů’s key works and a part of Czech core repertoire. So what’s it like hearing it in English ?

The opening erupts in the cry “Gilgamesh!” chorus alternating between soloist. group against individual.  Gilgamesh was all-powerful, but an oppressor  Martinů, who spoke good English,  was right about the clumsiness of the translation.  “To the appeal of their waiting, Goddess Aruru gave ear. She fingered out of clay……Enkidu made she, a warrior”  Jan Martiník sings the bass part. He’s the only native Czech speaker in this cast, and possibly the youngest soloist. Because the text is so archaic, his (very) slight accent works well, since it emphasizes the stylized non-realism central to the work, and indeed to its origins. Yet Martiník also manages to nuance his singing with emotion. As he describes Enkidu, the wild man, finding human solace, his voice softens.  The music changes, flurries on harp suggest the flowing of water, the bringing of life to the desert from which Enkidu came.  The choral part (Prague Philharmonic Choir) is lit by searching lines in the orchestra.  The soloists don’t portray individuals : the flow between choir, orchestra and individual voices progresses the piece structurally. Gilgamesh and Enkiddu end up in epic struggle, the choral lines moving back and forth until the dramatic breakthrough.           

Andrew Staples sings the tenor part, demonstrating the unique artistic qualities of the English Tenor voice type. He makes the awkward, jerky text curl and bristle with sinister tension. “When  I entered the House of the Dead, the Queen of the Underworld, she saw me, she lifted her head, she saw me….”  Although the other soloists (Lucy Crowe and Derek Welton) are good, the “personality” of the voice type hints at extra levels of meaning, making this English version worth listening to.  Enkidu lies dying, and Gilgamesh, now his friend, grieves. Welton’s last lines are followed by tiny broken fragments in the orchestra. The choir comments, male and female lines crossing and combining with the fluidity of waters in a river.

The final section, the Invocation, begins with vaguely “Babylonian” rhythms. An unearthly, high pitched “O!” wails from time to time (Lucy Crowe), her cry linking the disparate segments.  Tension builds. Gilgamesh enters the Temple of Enlil searching for the dead Enkidu. The orchestra pulsates savage ostinato, developing into a tumult of windswept frenzy.  Suddenly, the sound of single bells. For a brief moment, the two interact, as if in embrace. The baritone (Welton) asks about the afterlife. The bass (Martiník)  can only say “I saw, I saw”, expressed with great feeling.

The Epic of Gilgamesh has come down to us in broken fragments : we don’t know the whole story and cannot understand the full cultural context.  It’s enough that we can glimpse it through the archaic symbolism of Martinů’s music. The quality of singing in this performance (particularly the English tenor) makes it worth hearing, though the narration (Simon Callow), while suitably theatrical overpowers the purity of the music.  Thus I’d dare say that the Czech text should remain  unchallenged.  Whether it’s better than the English translation or not, I do not know, but the richness and depth of Czech language recordings is far more rewarding, in particular the recording by Belohlavek, also with the Prague Symphony Orchestra and also for Supraphon, nearly 20 years ago.  In marketing terms, some might assume you need an “international” style, but quite frankly,  the pungency of Czech is unique, and brings out the true punch in Martinů.  

Original Source: Bohuslav Martinů – The Epic of Gilgamesh

Favorite you tube video picks for 2018! (carried over from 2017)

I slipped up and missed the deadline for my end of 2017 super You Tube picks–realizing a bit late, that readers were celebrating the New Year in different time zones. Piano lovers from Japan and Australia had already popped champagne bottles 18 or so hours before those of us partook on the West Coast–And with USA Central, Mountain, Pacific and Eastern Standard times causing out of synch drifts of celebration, my Big Five You Tube List fizzled at 9 p.m. P.S.T, Dec. 31, as the stroke of Midnight Times Square (E.S.T.) ball drop welcomed 2018!

Still, redemption lay in a timeless series launched by the New York Times with long columns of piggy-backed you tube videos, Classical in genre, that were time-monitored for their mind-blowing moments. They fleshed out feats of virtuosity; heaven-on-earth phrase turns; wailing trills and heart-melting cadences. A harpist, Amy Turk, was singled out for her miraculous transcription/performance of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, amassing over 4 million views!

It became my bonus heist pick, falling outside keyboard bounds.

In the Piano Universe

Luis Fernando Perez

The artistry of Luis Fernando Pérez (Spain, b. 1977) topped my list, though choices following, from various years, accorded no preferential order.

Pianist, Perez, was my most treasured “new” You Tube surfing discovery, though he’d been circulating through Europe for years as soloist, chamber music player, and recording artist, earning performance awards along the way. Yet even with prestigious IMG Management, Perez had not reached the pinnacle of “big Name,” billboard success, having instead chosen a more true-to-art journey, reflected in his passion for Spanish repertoire that he chose to play in selected concert venues. (Carnegie Hall, or the Walt Disney complex were not along his musical route)

Perez’s website had revealed touch-downs at European Festivals interspersed by a foray to Kansas for a Master class and performance. He landed in North Carolina for a recital, though his travels inevitably pointed back to Europe.

In 2014, Perez played in Bilbao, Nantes, Paris, Madrid, Valencia, Zaragoza, San Sebastian, Brussels, Saint Petersburg, Budapest, Warsaw, Tokyo, Lyon, and Toulouse, with no further Internet posted concerts on his site. Judging by a significant escalation in Internet exposure post 2014, his energies seemed redirected to the recording cosmos.

Bryce Morrison, published a 2012 review in Gramaphone that amply described the pianist’s abundant gifts.

“RISING TO PRISTINE GLORY: Luis Fernando Pérez is clearly among the most individual and gifted pianists of today’s generation.

“And, in his more recent disc of Granados’s Goyescas, his playing is audaciously personal and has an improvisatory freedom and coloration very much his own. He achieves a superb senseof contrast, of innocence and experience…”


Perez’s interpretation of Spanish music is compelling as “channeled” through his performance of Enrique Granados Valses Poeticos. His radiant singing tone; broad palette of “colors,” and poignant creation of emotional intimacy draw the listener into a deep and abiding relationship with the composer.


Seymour Bernstein: A newly discovered awakening to tempo and mood in the Schumann Arabesque

A previous blog gave details and background about Bernstein’s epiphanies:

Seymour’s performance speaks for itself with its effortless spill of melody bundled in harmonic warmth. There’s no tempo impetuosity, or pre-meditated, boundary-determined section transitions. It’s all woven together as pure poetry flowing from the heart.

David Fray: A humbling encore follows a concerto performance:

J.S. Allemande from Partita No. 6 in E minor

This is an inspired rendering, well-voiced by Maestro Fray.


Irina Morozova
Irina Morozova – Bortkiewicz Etude Opus 15, No 9

Heaven on earth playing with impeccable fluidity. No words suffice to describe.


George Li plays Haydn with his emblematic liquidity and singing tone.

The complete Haydn sonata in B minor was the divine opener to Li’s October 2017 recital at S.F. Davies Hall.

Finally, Happy You Tube Surfing to All in 2018!

Original Source: Favorite you tube video picks for 2018! (carried over from 2017)

Thielemann swings ! Silvesterkonzert Dresden

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has named Christian Thielemann as conductior of the 2019 Vienna New Years Concert.  All the more reason Thielemann’s Silvesterkonzert with the Dresden Staatskapelle.  He’s done similar repertoire at the Dresden New Year’s Eve concerts for years. Come 2018/2019 he’ll be nipping back and forth, but one thing for sure, he’ll be interesting.  Dresden Silvesterkonzerts don’t always follow the same formula.  This year’s concert marked the centenary of  UFA GmbH, the conglomerate behind the German film industry.  Yet the concert was more than music from the movies. Outside Germany, UFA is associated with the Nazis, who took it over in 1933. With the rise of Far Right extremism all round the world, it might be safer to steer clear. But it’s far braver to confront the past, warts and all.  If we don’t learn from the past, we’ll make the same mistakes. 

With some trepidation, I approached the programme. But the UFA situation is far more complex than simple black and white. Deliberate pun on the technology behind Weimar film. For UFA was associated with some of the finest art movies ever made, and with directors like Fritz Lang and F W Murnau.  Goebbels wasn’t the first to realize that film could be used for mind control.  Witness the wave of Soviet films like October (more here) which are works of art but also propaganda.  When the Nazis came to power, the studios churned out stuff like Jud Süß which I confess I haven’t been able to watch for more than a few minutes. And hundreds of Africans and Roma were forced to work in slave conditions.  But  UFA made over 1000 films in this period and not all can be condemned.  The gradation between art and the abuse of art is a dilemma we need to confront, if we are to learn. 

Thielemann began with Erich Korngold’s main theme and love scene from Captain Blood.  Korngold  didn’t work at UFA but his music epitomizes what we’d now call “Hollywood Style” but like so many in Hollywood, he was European. Chances are he would have followed Max Reinhardt to the US whatever the circumstances, but by remembering him we also honour those who did not have a choice  Theo Mackeben remained in Germany, writing operettas and film scores, but  he knew Brecht and Weill, having conducted the premiere of Die Dreigroschenoper.  Angela Denoke sang his song Frauen sind keine Engel, not as politcial as Weill but certainly racy.   Hans May went into exile, but to Britain, not Hollywood, where he was part of the then-thriving British film industry.   Daniel Behle sang May’s Heut ist der schönste Tag.  The show stopper, though, was Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt made famous by Marlene Dietrich. Elisabeth Kulman looked the part in a silvery gown, but vocally she’s a lot stronger than Dietrich and could sing the “cadenza” arrangement.  The song comes from Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel  (1930) starring Marlene Dietrich.  The real star of that film was Emil Jannings, who’d established a career in Hollywood silent film.  He “reverse migrated” back to Germany. After 1933 he made movies for UFA on historical subjects, which in the circumstances had political overtones. Was he nationalist or Nazi ? Does nationalism necessarily lead to evil things ?

The Dresden Staatskapelle musicians morphed into dance band for fox trots, setting the mood for songs by Werner Richard Heymann, two from Die Drei von der Tankstelle (1930). The songs have an almost Schlager-like gaiety.   Saxophones and guitars turned the Staatskapelle into jazzband, with Daniel Behle hamming up stylishly in top hat and tails.  A moment for contemplation, though, with melancholy torch songs by Michael Jary, sensitively sung by Elisabeth Kullman.  Jary was a jazz musician, a genre the Nazis despised, but managed to scrape a living writing film scores for UFA. More songs by Mackeben , Friedrich Hollaender and Robert Stolz, “the luckiest man in the world” who made and lost several fortunes in the theatre. Winding up old, penniless and stateless in Paris, he was about to be imprisoned as an enemy alien, when he was saved by a beautiful 19-year-old heiress,who fell in love with him at first sight and became his (I think) sixth wife. They went to Hollywood where he made another fortune in movie music before returning to Dahlem and then Vienna (read more here).

Altogether a delicious concert,  played with total conviction, the material treated as serious music, not just “movie music”.  One of the finest classical,orchestras in the world, letting their hair down without dropping a note.  When Christian Thielemann swings, he swings like a natural!  Thielemann and the orchestra had much more substantial music to work with in Georg Haentzschel’s Große Suite in sechs Sätzen zu Münchhausen from one of the most extravagant movies UFA ever made, József Baky’s Münchhausen (1943).  Goebbels gave UFA an unlimited budget. The Grand Canal in Venice, no less,  was closed off for the filming.  Thousands of extras were employed, including, alas, African prisoners of war and German-born men from former colonies in West Africa.  Münchhausen travels to the palace of the Grand Sultan, where the Turks are comic and the eunuchs camp. That’s fairly benign by the standards of the time and not only in Nazi Germany, one should emphasize.  The Black men are dressed in silks, as slaves.  One wonders what was going on in their heads ?  At least they were – relatively – safe and many survived.  This is such an amazing movie that I’ll write more in depth later.  Like the Wizard of Oz, it’s fantasy but with quietly subversive political undercurrents,. The script was by Erich Kästner, definitely not a Nazi.

Original Source: Thielemann swings ! Silvesterkonzert Dresden