From closed doors to a heavenly host: The completion of a Mahler symphony cycle

by John Earls pictures (c) Andy Paradise

Two years ago, in the midst of the pandemic, I wrote a piece for Arcana FM on ‘Mahler’s Eighth and coming out of COVID-19’. I concluded by saying that I wouldn’t get to see a performance of this epic ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ – and complete my personal Mahler live symphony cycle – any time soon, but that when I did it would have a very particular significance.

I certainly didn’t know that the performance would be by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko at the Royal Albert Hall on a Sunday afternoon in late October 2022, a concert that was itself rescheduled due to the pandemic.

And what a performance it was. The Royal Albert Hall could be said to be purpose built for this work, accommodating not just an expanded orchestra (including seven off-stage brass players in the gods) but three choirs, two boys’ choirs, eight soloists and a huge concert organ (the Royal Albert Hall’s was once the largest instrument in the world).

You get the full blast of the organ from the off with the tumultuous opening of Part 1’s Veni Creator Spiritus. It’s quite a ride from there on in, and Petrenko and the RPO handled it superbly all the way through to the powerful finale of Part 2’s setting of the end of Goethe’s Faust. This was not just about the big sections, the delicate moments were deftly done too.

But this work is really all about the singing, and the assembled choirs of the Philharmonia and Bournemouth Symphony Choruses and City of London Choir, as well as the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Schola Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School were magnificent.

And it wasn’t just the massed voices, as glorious as they were. The soloists – and let’s name them (above): Sarah Wegener (Magna Peccatrix), Jacquelyn Wagner (Gretchen), Regula Mühlemann (Mater Gloriosa), Jennifer Johnston (Mulier Samaritana), Claudia Huckle (Mary of Egypt), Vincent Wolfsteiner (Doctor Marianus), Benedict Nelson (Pater Ecstaticus) and James Platt (Pater Profundus) – were excellent too.

I made the point in my earlier piece that there is something about the combination of the mass assembled forces performing together and being joined by an audience in an even bigger collective. I think the standing ovation from the near sell-out crowd at the end was testimony to this.

Mahler’s Eighth is definitely one of those pieces that you need to see performed live. I’m so glad that I finally did.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls

In Concert – The Dream Syndicate @ Lafayette

The Dream Syndicate Plays The Days of Wine and Roses and more

The Dream Syndicate [Steve Wynn (guitar / vocals), Jason Victor (guitar), Mark Walton (bass guitar), Dennis Duck (drums)]

Lafayette, Kings Cross, London; 18 October 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Can it really be 40 years since The Dream Syndicate launched The Days of Wine and Roses on an unsuspecting public beholden to the false promise of the New Romantics or wanton hubris of Hair Metal? Judging by the effusive reception from this capacity ‘we were there’ house (by no means restricted to males edging towards their seventh decade) at Lafayette, those first impressions of its Velvets-meets-Stooges amalgam have not worn thin – nor has this band’s penchant for unleashing visceral alt-rock with an ease born of intuition.

Taking the stage with unstudied casualness, DS needed no warm-up as it launched a suitably blistering take on Bullet Holes – Steve Wynn duly acknowledging those present before the mock-hedonism of Out Of My Head, then a driving account of Put Some Miles On. If the band’s reformation in 2012 after a 23-year sabbatical was unexpected, the consistency of its four-album run this past decade has been heartening. The spiralling enticement of 2017’s How Did I Find Myself Here, pulsating song-set of 2019’s These Times, daring leap into the dark of 2020’s The Universe Inside and now the heady synthesis of European with American traits of just-released Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions between them confirm an outfit which has never yet repeated itself whether four, eight or (why not?) 12 albums in.

This latest offering was next up in the moody soulfulness of Damian, then an incendiary take on Burn underlined just why it remains a candidate for the greatest-ever DS song – and one to whose deep-cutting groove the engaging catchiness of Every Time You Come Around made a perfect foil. Hard To Say Goodbye exuded a pathos not without regret, and the engaging irony of Trying To Get Over rounded off a judiciously chosen trio from the new album. DS was never averse to taking risks frowned upon by its hide-bound peers, the disciplined riffing of How Did I Find Myself Here a riposte to those unable to grow old creatively while still rocking-out as instinctively as their younger selves. A ‘half of life’ classic to rank with the finest, Glide brought this first set towards its ecstatic touchdown.

A decade on, the current line-up gratifies with its stability and impresses with its flexibility – Wynn’s resourceful rhythm playing a sure incitement to Jason Victor’s combustible flights of fancy, with Mark Walton as unobtrusive or as playful as the song required, and Dennis Duck a model of proactive time keeping (no place this time for Chris Cacavas’s multi-layered keys – hopefully next tour). All of which were honed to perfection for a complete traversal of DS’s debut album that, as Frank Sinatra’s mellow tones faded out, took up most of the second set.

Its initial rimshot riveting attention, Tell Me When It’s Over compelled in its overlapping guitars and sneering vocal, as did Definitely Clean with its new-wave abrasiveness. It may have resorted to something like its initial arrangement, but the vamping riff of That’s What You Always Say assuredly took no prisoners, while Then She Remembers took on Iggy and the Asheton’s at their own game to secure at least a ‘score-draw’. Hallowe’en proved intriguing as ever with its inscrutable provocation then, after a brief pause for ‘turning over’, When You Smile cast a hypnotic spell via its glancing feedback and baleful power-chords. Wynn may no longer indulge in those verbal volleys that once articulated the latter stages of Until Lately but this fable of disillusion still packs its punch, while Too Little Too Late brought Linda Pitmon to front of stage for this insinuating take on a number once graced by Kendra Smith. Its dark humour unleashed, The Days of Wine and Roses surged forth on a twin-guitar rave of epic proportions thrown into relief only when brought to a shuddering halt.

What it showed, apart from the intrinsic excellence of DS, was the relevance of this album to the musical present – its ‘way of doing things’ formidably conveyed through the ambience of Lafayette, well on its way to becoming a mid-sized venue of choice for such gigs. The band returned for an inexorable take on Donovan’s Season of the Witch, before it tore into the inevitable curtain-closer of John Coltrane Stereo Blues with a vengeance. Is a 2024 tour featuring a 40th-anniversary rendition The Medicine Show on the cards? We can only hope.

You can read more about The Dream Syndicate at their website – while for more on Steve Wynn click here For information on Lafayette, head to the venue website

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Steven R. Gerber – Music In Dark Times

Gerber Music in Dark Times [UK premiere]

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 2 December 2021

by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra has been assiduous in promoting Steven R. Gerber (below), not least with a release of string-orchestra arrangements of his chamber music from Darron Hagen and Adrian Williams (Nimbus NI6423), and now this online performance of Music in Dark Times.

Written to a commission by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, who gave the first performance in March 2009, this is very much a synthesis of traits from its composer’s maturity and, in contrast to the largely interiorized world of his chamber output at this time, a demonstrably public statement with resonances beyond its immediately American context. Opening with an expanded version of the Fanfare for the Voice of America, written in the aftermath of those events of 9/11, it continues with a Pavane featuring the diaphanous interplay of brass and strings, then by a Dance of Death whose tarantella-like underpinning adds greatly to its malevolence. This, in turn, finds contrast in a Dead March which builds in a steady crescendo towards a climax left ominously unresolved. It remains for an Elegy, scored only for strings, to provide a measure of solace in music that reaches back to pieces by composers such as Piston, Carter and Barber; after which – a full orchestral Fanfare brings this sequence to a close which, while far from affirmative, offers at least a glimmer of hope.

Although scored for sizable forces – including triple woodwind, five horns and four trumpets – Music in Dark Times is resourcefully as well as atmospherically orchestrated so that salient details are always heard to register. The ESO players are audibly at home in this piece, while Kenneth Woods directs with assurance music he clearly – and rightly – believes in. Hopefully it will be issued on a future release of Gerber’s orchestral work (including the still unrecorded Second Symphony), but for now this latest ESO online offering can be well recommended.

This concert can be accessed free from 14-18 October 2022 at the English Symphony Orchestra website, then through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods – while information in the orchestra’s Steven R. Gerber release can be found here

Preview – Oxford Lieder Festival 2022

by Ben Hogwood

In three weeks’ time, the 21st Oxford Lieder Festival will be underway – and this is a short piece to show you why it’s worth going!

Arcana first attended this festival in 2018, and were really taken with its layout, friendly atmosphere, and intimate (or breathtaking!) venues. This is before we even get to the music, which is imaginatively chosen and programmed, and performed by some of the best singers and pianists available. Not only that, but festival director Sholto Kynoch and his team place the music in the context of interesting talks and features to place the songs in the context of the wider arts climate.

This year’s festival is Friendship In Song: An Intimate Art, and its aim is to ‘explore friendships between composers, poets and performers, recreate the intimate atmosphere of the salon, and generally enjoy a festive spirit of conviviality and shared experience. World-renowned artists mingle with the best of the new generation, and the great works of the song repertoire are complemented by new music and new discoveries’.

You are encouraged to head to the festival website to explore the concerts and artists, but Arcana would like to point you to a couple. On Saturday 15 October the songs of Richard Strauss come under the microscope. Until recently this aspect of the composer’s output was not greatly considered, lying in the shadow of his orchestral works and operas, but more recent explorations have shown just how inventive he could be as a songwriter.

On Sunday 16 October Claire Booth & Christopher Glynn perform songs and piano works by Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and later that evening Patricia Petibon & Susan Manoff make their festival debut in a typically imaginative programme. If you have not seen these two live before, they are a brilliant double act, bringing their songs to life, as Arcana discovered at the Wigmore Hall back in 2015.

Tuesday 18 October sees the beginning of a mini-series devoted to this year’s most prominent festival composer. Vaughan Williams: Perspectives will examine some of RVW’s most memorable songs and cycles, including Songs of Travel (William Thomas & Anna Tilbrook) and Four Last Songs (Ailish Tynan and Libby Burgess). As a considerable bonus Alessandro Fisher, William Vann & the Navarra Quartet will perform On Wenlock Edge together with a complementary work, Portraits of a Mind by British composer Ian Venables.

Wednesday 19 October finds soprano Lotte Betts-Dean and pianist Natalie Burch performing Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, a late night slot for his Quiet Songs – and then on Sunday 23 October a day devoted to Schubert will revel in concerts from Birgid Steinberger & Julius Drake (Schubert and the Sounds of Vienna), then Werner Güra and Christoph Berner (Schubert ballads)

The Swedish Nightingale is a recital themed on the legendary Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, whose life and musical contacts will be explored by soprano Camilla Tilling and pianist Paul Rivinius on Tuesday 25 October. The next day, father and son duo – Christoph Prégardien and Julian Prégardien – will give a concert with Michael Gees, which promises to be a memorable encounter. Finally, regular festival guest Carolyn Sampson will give Music For A While on Friday 28 October, with her regular partner Joseph Middleton, while the festival will close with Dame Sarah Connolly singing music by Brahms, Schumann, Strauss and Mahler, alongside pianist Eugene Asti.

What a memorable three weeks it promises to be!

Screen Grab: The music of Marriage – new BBC drama brings composer Caroline Shaw to the fore

This week the BBC have started showing the intriguing drama Marriage, which has superstar quality from its two lead characters, Sean Bean and Nicola Walker.

The series has split opinion in its accurate portrayal of every life in a marriage lasting 27 years – largely played out in real time. As the series has developed the many subtleties have combined to a plot that is gathering substance and meaning as time goes on, rather like life itself.

One of the most striking elements of the drama is its bold choice of signature tune, which again has divided opinion sharply. The chosen music is by composer Caroline Shaw (above) – the first couple of minutes of her Partita for unaccompanied choir, specifically the first movement Allemande.

Initially the voices sound like an extra part of Marriage, especially as the plot continues to play out, but as the voices come together in a firm pitch so too do the images, and the end credits roll.

You can listen to the full movement, which lasts six minutes, below – and enjoy Shaw’s wonderful layering of the voices, with spicy harmonic clashes and some vibrant writing for the small choir:

The Partita continues with three further movements, each based on an old dance form. The Sarabande is initially soothing and enchanting, before really letting rip with primal power halfway through. The Courante, the most substantial of the four movements, has a number of hypnotic effects and fresh faced harmonies, especially halfway through as it soars to unexpected heights.

Finally the Passacaglia has a lilting base to its music, and a spoken word commentary resumes as it did at the start of the piece, before the voices end powerfully in unison.

Here is a live performance, given by the dedicatees Roomful of Teeth – with whom the composer sings:

Aside from this high profile appearance, Shaw has been making quite a name for herself in recent years. In 2021, Nonesuch released the album Let The Soil Play Its Simple Part, written and performed with Sō Percussion:

Meanwhile the choral piece And the Swallow lingers particularly long in the memory:

You can discover more of Caroline’s music at her website