Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Tom Morley on Ravi Shankar & Philip Glass: Passages

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series Tom Morley gives his thoughts on the Britten Sinfonia’s rare performance of the Philip Glass / Ravi Shankar collaboration Passages, with the composer’s daughter Anoushka Shankar playing the sitar.

Prom 41: Alexa Mason (soprano), Anoushka Shankar (sitar), Ravichandra Kulur (bansuri), Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar), Britten Sinfonia / Karen Kamensek (above)

Philip Glass & Ravi Shankar Passages (1989-90)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 15 August 2017 (late night)

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Tom, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

There were two main influences in my musical upbringing. The first came from the local church choir which I sang with three times a week. Most of what we sang was very traditional although there was a piece by Messiaen which got wheeled out every now and then which was pretty out there.

Secondly, my parents were musical so I remember them playing and singing around the house. I’ve also got memories of sitting down with my Dad to listen to a recording, his taste is pretty eclectic so I remember listening to Phantom of the Opera, Donald Where’s Your Troosers, Return to Innocence by Enigma and Night Boat To Cairo by Madness!

What experiences have you had up until now with classical music, and have they been good or bad, or both? (Examples are great if you’re able!)

Aside from the choir, I played trumpet in an orchestra for a short while but decided it wasn’t really my thing. At university I had a few lectures on classical music but once again, struggled to find anything that really spoke to me apart from the odd piece here and there. I wouldn’t say my experiences with classical music have been either good or bad, probably somewhere in the middle.

What if any have been your previous experiences of the Proms?

I’ve never been to a Prom. I sometimes look through the schedule and think about going but have got round to going to see one.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Radiohead – They always seem to keep their music interesting and challenging and I like the cinematic quality to some of what they write as well as the artwork and concepts that go along with the music.

Snarky Puppy – These guys are brilliant musicians, they’re really supportive of music education and they look like they’re having a great time on stage. Definitely more of a live band than a studio band.

The Beatles – An obvious choice, but they did so much to push the boundaries of popular music and created so many memorable tracks in a such a short while as well as having a massive influence on music and culture.

What did you think of the concert?

I loved it. I can honestly say I’ve never heard anything like that before. I think I was particularly fortunate to be at this one which was a real meeting of styles and ideas and the first live performance of the piece with great musicianship all round.

What did you think of the environment in the Arena?

Not what I was expecting at all. When we walked up the steps the atmosphere changed completely. Some people were standing, some were sitting or lying down and there was a buzz of excitement but when the music started everyone was listening intently. I think this was helped by the fact that this was a late night performance and in some ways, it felt more like a gig than a concert and even though we were close to the back, we still had a good view of the stage.

Is there anything you would change about the Proms?

More of the same please. If they’re all as varied and unique as this one then there’s nothing I’d change, stick to the same formula. If I had to change one thing, it’d be an outsiders perception of the proms. I thought that it was a strictly ‘classical’ music event but there seems to be a real range of different styles and types of music being performed. It’d be great if more people realised how accessible the proms are, even if you don’t typically listen to classical music.

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – Anoushka Shankar and the Britten Sinfonia with Karen Kamensek perform ‘Passages’

Prom 41: Alexa Mason (soprano), Anoushka Shankar (sitar), Ravichandra Kulur (bansuri), Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar), Britten Sinfonia / Karen Kamensek (above)

Philip Glass & Ravi Shankar Passages (1989-90)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 15 August 2017 (late night)

You can listen to this Prom here

Passages is a good, old fashioned piece of classical crossover as it really should be, an example of just how well different forms of music can feed from each other if the composers are flexible and like-minded about their project.

Philip Glass was certainly enthusiastic on discovering the music of Ravi Shankar in Paris in 1965, laying the roots for a collaboration between the two, finally engineered by Private Music in 1989. The result was the intriguing Passages, an hour-long work that sits squarely between the two in terms of style. It is a ‘to me, to you’ work, each composer finishing the other’s thoughts in full musical clothing.

Initially on hearing the strains of Offering and Sadhanipa, however, you might have wondered if the two composers actually met in the construction of the piece. Offering is so irrefutably ‘Glassy’ in style, bubbling beneath the surface before moving into those persuasive cross rhythms he executes so effectively, but it has extra colour in the orchestration to mark it out. Likewise, Sadhanipa stands out with its use of the rich timbres of the Eastern instruments brought in by Shankar as part of the fusion.

Gradually the sounds come together, the distinctive figurations of Shankar complementing the rigorous methods of Glass, and taming them attractively when appropriate. To experience this at the Proms was a treat indeed, the ever-flexible Britten Sinfonia sitting centre stage but often in thrall to the group of musicians positioned on their left, led by Shankar’s daughter Anoushka (below).

Hers was a particularly captivating presence, the sounds from her sitar at once alluring and lovingly wrought, a complement to the superb string playing of Jackie Shave and her Britten cohorts. Soprano Alexa Mason deserves a mention for her floated yet penetrating delivery above the textures in Channels and Winds, while the brass and woodwind were particularly strong in the passages where Glass asks for a more mechanised approach. Meetings Along The Edge was particularly powerful because of this.

The score was full of colourful surprises, which the audience lapped up, and did not suffer for the ‘bar lines’ introduced by conductor Karen Kamensek for the necessity of concert performance. Happily this did not rein the music in, for it was clearly intensively rehearsed, and the Britten Sinfonia players, no strangers to playing music across cultural and artistic borders, responded to the contours of Shankar’s melodies and the clear direction of Kamensek as naturally as they did for the Glass elements.

The resulting collaboration may be a little on the episodic side, but Passages is never less than intriguing, and in this late night performance its qualities were very much to the fore in music that pulsed and shimmered before our very eyes.

One gripe – it would have been nice to credit the orchestral players in the program. Great though it is to have a free and colourful document of the occasion, it seems a shame not to name the players responsible for helping make this night a memorable one.

Ben Hogwood

You can hear the original recording of Passages on the Spotify link below:

Steve Reich at 80 – Barbican review

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Steve Reich at 80

Pendulum Music (1968)

Nagoya Guitars (1996)

Electric Counterpoint (1987)

Different Trains (1988)

Pulse (2015) [Barbican co-commission: European premiere]

Three Tales (2002)

Dither (electric guitars), Thomas Gould and Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Beryl Korot (video); Electronic Music Studios of the GSMD; Synergy Vocals; Britten Sinfonia / Clark Rundell

Barbican Hall, London

Saturday 5th November [6.30pm]

The Barbican venues were dominated this weekend by Steve Reich, whose 80th birthday fell on October 3rd and whose music is the most vital manifestation of the minimalist aesthetic, as well as a pervasive influence on later generations of essentially non-minimalist composers.

The Saturday evening concert itself offered a fair overview of Reich’s evolution across three decades. Pendulum Music may be more an art installation than musical composition, but the presence of 16 people each setting a microphone in motion, such that the resulting feedback is projected by accompanying speakers, makes for a music-theatrical experience of no mean efficacy. A thought persists whether Reich might have been encouraged to do for pendulums what Ligeti had done for metronomes with his Poème symphonique just six years previously?

Utterly consistent in his compositional techniques, Reich has never written intrinsically bad pieces though he has written a few boring ones. There could be no doubting the effectiveness with which David Tanenbaum adapted 1994’s Nagoya Marimbas into Nagoya Guitars, even though the resulting canonic interplay barely sustained interest over its six minutes. Nor did the presence of live guitarists make Electric Counterpoint a riveting experience – not helped by amplification that blurred the interplay of the 11 leads and muddied that of the two basses.

This programme was to have featured Reich’s WTC 9/11 (by some way the most meaningful response to those atrocities in New York), but few would have begrudged revival of Different Trains. Here a live string quartet and three pre-recorded equivalents are overlaid with speech patterns as evoke their literal and metaphorical ‘journeys’ to spellbinding effect, above all in the climactic central Europe – during the war section where observations of three Holocaust survivors become integrated into a soundscape as affecting as any Reich has (and could ever have) achieved. Framed by engaging recollections of the composer’s peripatetic childhood in America – before the war, and a more reflective sequence focussing on observations After the war, it is likely to remain Reich’s masterpiece and Minimalism’s defining raîson d’être.

After which, Pulse was a gentle come-down. This latest Reich work deploys its ensemble of woodwind, strings and pianos via interweaving canons in music that pivots between repose and torpor – with more than a hint of American ‘ruralism’ as regard its harmony and texture.

Back to more immediate concerns with Three Tales – the second of Reich’s collaborations with the video artist Beryl Korot, and his closest engagement (to date) with the premises of contemporary music-theatre. There are three parts, and these are strongly differentiated as to era, concept and underlying form. Thus Hindenburg unfolds as a suite where reportage of the 1937 zeppelin disaster frames imagery of its construction and (over-reaching) ambition, while Bikini is akin to an oblique sonata-design in which footage from the air, on the atoll and on the ships is imbued with expressive intensification and ominous Biblical undertones.

These latter are to the fore in Dolly, where images of the first cloned mammal become the catalyst for six sections akin – in musical terms – to developing variation in the way over a dozen talking heads, with their ‘outlooks’ on the future, are juxtaposed in a sequence whose implosive final dialogue of Kismet (a socially intelligent humanoid robot) with its creator parallels changes from external to internal technological developments over the last century.

Hugely ambitious (despite its barely hour-long duration) and far more compellingly presented than on its previous Barbican outing over a decade ago, Three Tales might still promise more than it delivers, but its attempt to grapple with contemporary issues remains absorbing and it is to be hoped that Reich and Korot will take on one more collaborative challenge. Tonight’s realization overcame technical hitches to convey its emotional charge in full measure, Clark Rundell drawing a precisely coordinated response from Synergy Vocals and Britten Sinfonia.

Reich and Korot were on hand for a post-performance discussion where the former was asked as to future-plans. His immediate task is for a piece on the principals of the ‘concerto grosso’, which will doubtless emerge revivified at the hands of this perennially resourceful composer.

Richard Whitehouse

Britten Sinfonia At Lunch Two: Anna Clyne’s This Lunar Beauty

britten-sinfonia

Julia Doyle (soprano), Marios Argiros (oboe), Maggie Cole (harpsichord), Jacqueline Shave, Miranda Dale (violins), Clare Finnimore (cello), Caroline Dearnley (cello)

Wigmore Hall, 20 January 2016

Written by Ben Hogwood

If you live in London or the South East of England, and fancy a bit of musical exploration, then the Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch series comes highly recommended.

Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the enterprise promises a brand new work in every concert – and proceeds to build the whole hour of music around it, often with the shared theme of a particular instrumental or vocal combination. With programme notes for adults or schoolchildren, it is one of the most accessible lunchtime concerts you could wish to enjoy – and as well as having the obvious bonus of professional quality performances, it is completely judgement-free!

This particular concert illustrated just why the formula works so well. Taking as its theme the combination of voice, oboe and strings, the Britten Sinfonia built an intricately weaved concert taking in arias from Bach and Scarlatti cantatas as well as two very different approaches to minimalism from Arvo Pärt and Ligeti. It was fitting, then, that the final piece – the new commission from Anna Clyne, This Lunar Beauty, should bring all these strands together.

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Anna Clyne photo by Javier Oddo

Setting the W.H. Auden poem of the same name, Clyne has written a piece of outstanding beauty. Its calling card is a distinctive melody that seems to be sourced from medieval England, but works it in a way of which the late 1960s British folk pioneers such as Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span or Pentangle would be entirely proud.

The repetitions of the tune, given in soprano Julia Doyle’s clear tones, were subtly varied by additions and subtractions to the instrumental texture, filling up with strings or paring back so the glitter of the harpsichord could be sensed on top. This Lunar Beauty left a strong emotional impression, using its forces sensitively in new music of rare quality and depth.

Before this, Doyle leant her clear tones to three varied arias from Bach Cantatas, with oboist Marios Argiros excelling in the obbligato to the aria Tief gebückt und voller Reue. We also heard Salvatore Sciarrino’s arrangement of two arias by Alessandro Scarlatti, the first of which had a striking accompaniment of muted strings without vibrato.

The two very different approaches to minimalism were fascinating. In Arvo Pärt’s Fratres time stood suspended as the string quartet’s theme, first heard in ghostly harmonics, gradually found body and soul before ebbing away into the distance. Ligeti’s Continuum froze time in a wholly different way, the solo harpsichord – brilliantly played by Maggie Cole – seemingly trapped in rapidly flashing strobes. Somehow, despite the hyperactive energy, this too found its own stillness.

A very fine concert, hopefully to be broadcast on the BBC in the future. In the meantime, have a listen to the audio below – and get yourselves over to listen to vocal works on Anna Clyne’s website, because this is a composer we want to hear a lot more of!

You can also hear her new Violin Concerto The Seamstress on the BBC iPlayer, performed by Jennifer Koh and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. The concert is available until 14 February 2016

Vaughan Williams and Sir James MacMillan – Oboe Concertos

macmillan-vw-daniel

Nicholas Daniel teams up with the Britten Sinfonia and Harmonia Mundi to present the recorded premiere of the Oboe Concerto by the recently knighted Sir James MacMillan. He couples this with a much shorter piece by the composer, One, and another British oboe concerto, the well-loved Vaughan Williams. Completing a varied cross-section of styles is Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes (A Time There Was), his final completed orchestral work.

What’s the music like?

MacMillan has written a bold Oboe Concerto, a substantial work lasting nearly 25 minutes that makes great technical demands on its soloist. It is a rewrite of an earlier piece for oboe and orchestra, In Angustiis, which responded to the horrors of 9/11. While the piece is essentially optimistic in tone, these thoughts can be felt in the second movement, essentially a lament, where the strings sigh painfully, and in a moment of deep thought that occurs towards the end of the first movement – in complete contrast to the jaunty, angular main material.

Vaughan Williams’ concerto is a lovely piece, its dreamy first theme coloured with strings to evoke a picture of hazy sunshine. Completed in 1944, it is a largely positive work in the face of the Second World War, especially in the third movement, where a dance plays out between oboe and strings.

Britten’s suite, as with so many of his orchestral works, is a model of economy, saying in fifteen minutes what many lesser composers would do in 25. It is extremely resourceful in its use of ten folk tunes, but it is also tinged with pain, the composer aware that he is in his last days – and this is felt in Daniel’s cor anglais solo in the tune Lord Melbourne.

One, the second MacMillan piece here also shows his love for his home country, based on a single, arching tune based on the traditional song of Scotland and Ireland.

Does it all work?

Nicholas Daniel is one of our finest oboists, and although even he admits to difficulties in learning the part for the MacMillan his playing is absolutely superb. The energy of that work contrasts with the soulful Vaughan Williams, an affectionate performance where the slightly reduced forces of the Britten Sinfonia (in comparison to a full scale orchestra) mean more detail can be heard and enjoyed. Turning his hand to a conducting role, Daniel teases out Britten’s subtle affection for folk tunes through the relative darkness of illness.

Is it recommended?

Yes – and how satisfying to listen to such a substantial contemporary piece for oboe, which could hardly have a better advocate than it does here.

With contrasting styles of music this disc is an unrestricted pleasure, and is recommended for all fans of classical music from these shores.

Listen on Spotify

This disc can be heard here: