Concerts in my Kitchen

I have never visited Norway, let alone been to a concert there but thanks to the new normal, I have been enjoying the latest series of live performances from Oslo and Bergen, in my kitchen in Edinburgh, Scotland, on a laptop plugged into a couple of speakers.

Musicians from the Oslo Philharmonic have been broadcasting digital concerts from the Oslo Concert Hall and so far I’ve heard some superb performances of a range of music including a Bach keyboard concerto (BWV 1056), Debussy’s Prélude à L’après-midi d’un Faune, Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet and Steve Riech’s Vermont Counterpoint  and New York Counterpoint: all works for solo, small ensemble or chamber orchestra, making self-distancing possible.

Last week, I heard their stunning performance of Berio’s Folk Songs with the soprano Stina Steingrim Levvel. Her command of a wide range of styles and languages was remarkable. But it was the way she communicated with her invisible audience, that was so compelling. I was on the edge of my seat. 

Another treat from Norway was the opening concert of the Bergen International Festival last week. Its concerts are also going online in venues without an audience. This concert by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra introduced me to the music of Jörg Widman: his exciting brass Fanfare, his rhythmic 180 Beats per Minute for string orchestra and his Con Brio for orchestra with fragments of Beethoven’s 7th symphony flickering almost imperceptibly inside the music. After a wonderful performance of Mozart’s concert aria, Ch’io mi scordi di te? with soprano Mari Eriksmoen as soloist, the concert concluded with Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa for two violins, string orchestra and prepared piano – a thrilling and hopeful piece which I hadn’t heard for ages and which seemed perfectly programmed for these uncertain times.

These are just two organisations producing live concert broadcasts during restrictions and whilst they don’t have their usual physical audiences perhaps they have a more world-wide online following. With major concert halls around the world closed to the public, is it time for a rethink?

As well as these wonderful events from Norway, I’ve now seen online concerts from Germany, Hungary, the US and the UK. I’m getting used to watching performances in empty concert halls – the echo of footsteps on the stage, normally soaked up by an audience, musicians bowing to rows of empty seats, no clapping, no-one shaking hands. Sometimes a wave from the musicians breaks the ice as if they recognise that we are watching. 

Of course there are many musicians performing in much more informal settings. International soloists, violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Jeremy Denk, recently played solos and as a trio, broadcast on Live with Carnegie Hall, chatting and performing from their homes in three different locations. It was great to hear such musicianship and ensemble playing, unfazed by all the obstacles that come from being in different continents, on computers, with headphones. Throughout the world, musicians are now finding a new way of reaching us. 

I heard about all these events and many more, thanks to Alec Ross who has been researching and updating links to some great online performances across the world through his website: The Rest is Noise. (link below)

As the pandemic goes on, I’ll be continuing to watch online concerts in my kitchen. If you too would like to hear some first class performances online, here are a few links:

Alex Ross with the latest what’s online:   The Rest is Noise – Covid 19 Live streams

On now till 6/06/20: Bergen International Festival

Live concerts from Oslo Concert Hall: https://ofo.no/en/mellomspill-interlude

Live With Carnegie Hall: https://www.carnegiehall.org/Explore/Watch-and-Listen/Live-with-Carnegie-Hall

Live concerts from Budapest Festival Orchestra

Berlin Philharmonic: Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, recorded concerts and more: https://www.rsno.org.uk/rsno-online/

London Symphony Orchestra: https://lso.co.uk/whats-on/alwaysplaying.html

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3PnXsxbTjKHCVCc7ZVYPNlV/bbc-sso-in-isolation-musicliftsthespirit

Yo-Yo Ma and Silkroad Ensemble: Songs of Comfort on You Tube

 

 

 

Back to Bach

Later today, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma is going to play all six Bach suites in memory of those who have died of Covid-19. He has performed the suites in many parts of the world and now will play them in a concert online. (See a previous post: Yo-Yo Ma builds bridges with Bach.) He has been playing Bach’s music to communicate his message of peace and hope across nations and now he will play a memorial concert for those who have been lost to the pandemic.

For me, as a cellist, Bach’s suites for solo cello are, of course, very special. But I also adore Bach’s magnificent works for large forces. The St John Passion for solo voices, chorus and orchestra, is almost overwhelming in its emotional power. I was lucky enough to catch an unusual online performance of this work arranged for solo voice, percussion and harpsichord/organ given on Good Friday at St Thomas Church, Leipzig. Yes, the church where Bach was concert master and organist. It was arranged and sung by Benedikt Kristjansson. Wow! Am I glad I stopped still for a few hours to watch this. The singing was spine-tingling, the arrangement imaginative and creative. It was one of the most moving performances of the piece I have ever heard. And that was the third St John Passion I had heard since lockdown!

And the other two were by the Berlin Phil. One of the first things I did was take advantage of the 30 day free trial of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra digital concert hall: a treasure trove of concert archives. It was the beginning of lockdown and I was full of positive energy and optimism that a few weeks indoors would cure this pandemic. I spent several days watching concerts including two performances of Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions. Mark Padmore sang the part of the Evangelist, Simon Rattle conducted and Peter Sellars directed these stunning dramatised performances. Each performance was profoundly  moving and affected me for days afterwards.

Now, several weeks on and still in lockdown, Bach’s music remains balm for the soul, for me. So thank you in advance to Yo-Yo Ma for this concert of Bach’s cello suites to be performed on You Tube at 8pm this evening.

Yo-Yo Ma plays a Bach memorial concert, on Sunday, May 24 at 3p ET (8pm BST)

For performances of St John and St Matthew Passions and much more:

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Digital Concert Hall

 

My Brief Encounter with Rachmaninov

Last weekend, I watched the 1945 classic film Brief Encounter for the first time and now at last, I understand what the big deal is about its use of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto as its soundtrack. I first heard the piece as a teenager and loved its dramatic opening chords and sweeping string melodies and I listened to it over and over. My mum, a cinema fan since her early teens, always told me she couldn’t hear it without thinking of the heart-rending, romantic film which came out when she was fourteen. But I’d found the music heart-rending and romantic without seeing the film, swept along by its swirling themes and virtuosic, rippling piano sounds.

I had seen a clip from the film, a couple at a train window with Rachmaninov’s music telling you all you need to know about their relationship. Now, watching from the start, as the whistle of a steam train whooshing through the station ushers in the ominous piano chords which launch into the first stirring melody, the turbulent mood is set and I’m already hooked.

This is a story of conflicted emotions. Two strangers, Laura and Alec (both married to other people) begin to fall for one another, after meeting by chance in the refreshment room at Milford Junction. The initial dialogue scenes in the refreshment room are starkly unaccompanied. But on the train home, a plaintive theme begins quietly, as Laura reflects on her feelings, a theme that returns at poignant moments later in the film. As the story unfolds, we see Laura, in a highly emotional statehurrying through the station, whilst an agitated theme leads to another yearning melody and trains continue to hurtle by.

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For me, there’s something nostalgic and romantic about old fashioned stations anyway, especially during the age of the steam train – couples saying their goodbyes and waving to each other as they disappear into the distance. So, when we come to the famous scene at the train window towards the end that I had seen out of context, I am now on board and in bits. Is it the setting, the story or the music?

Perhaps it’s the combination of all three. It seems to me as if the music could have been written for the film, the extracts (taken from different parts of the concerto) fit so perfectly, taking us on a whirlwind journey of heady romance. Unsettling passages from the score highlight Laura’s anguish as she wrestles with feelings of guilt, decency and honour. To modern ears, the couple’s terribly polite clipped English accents seem to intensify the restraint in their conversation but Rachmaninov’s music leaves you in no doubt of their passionate feelings.

I love the way the story is told by Laura, as she imagines telling it to her husband (which she knows she never can) as they sit at home together, listening to the radio, whilst he does the Times crossword. The answer to the clue she helps him with just happens to be the word ‘romance’ and when she switches on the radiogram, it just happens to be playing Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. She relives her romance as she listens, just as my mum relived the film every time we listened to that same music, as we sat by our fireside.

Listen to this piece and be ready for an emotional journey. Watch the film and indulge in a foolish, romantic dream, swept along by the music. Oh dear, I think I just got a speck of something in my eye (cue Rachmaninov).

The film Brief Encounter directed by David Lean and starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard is available on BBC iPlayer till 13/06/20.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/m00041p7/brief-encounter

 

Stay at Home – No More Excuses

When I started Liv’s Music World, my idea was to make connections with people around the world through a shared passion for music. Now we have in common a terrifying pandemic and a requirement in some parts, certainly here in Scotland, to stay at home. Since I can’t go anywhere, it has become a time for me to get organised and do some serious practice. I have already sorted out my cupboards and put my music into file boxes in alphabetical order by the composer’s name. This means I can now find the piece I am looking for without a major upheaval of my life. (CDs are next on my list and then perhaps I’ll have a look at the vinyl collection).

One of the dilemmas of my sort out was what to do with pieces that I know I’ll never be able to play. I have so many cello and piano scores that are way beyond me, which I’d bought years ago, in some deluded, optimistic, youthful shopping spree. The charity shops have been closed for a while now, so I put them into the appropriate box for a rainy day. Well now is a rainy day so, against my better judgement, I’ve dug out the Grieg piano concerto. So far I have only learnt the first three pages but I am having fun. One day, I’m going to go to one of those pianos in the open air or at St Pancras Station and play the first movement (or perhaps just the first three pages) of the Grieg. Luckily for me it looks like that day could be a long time away!

I’d be happy to get the dramatic opening up to speed. Here’s what it should sound like …