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April - June
2016

Ronald Corp: Composer, Conductor – and more

Roderic Dunnett

Ronald Corp

The distinguished writer and commentator considers the varied career of this remarkable British musician.

When the New London Orchestra was formed in 1991, it caused a flurry of excitement. It offered scope to a wealth of talented young players unmatched, arguably, in London since Richard Hickox gathered his band together (now the City of London Orchestra), or until Simon Over founded his much-in-demand Southbank Sinfonia.

No fly-by-night, the NLO was here to stay. And it was essentially the inspiration of one gifted man: composer-conductor Ronald Corp.

It’s rare enough to find a former BBC music librarian taking to the dais. As Corp recalls, ‘I did 14 years in the BBC Music Library, supplying scores to both radio and television, and then in the BBC Singers’ library. Fortunately, by then I was being asked to take rehearsals and to conduct all over the place.’

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Lennox Berkeley – a Memoir

John McLeod

Lennox Berkeley

The distinguished Scottish composer recalls his studies with Sir Lennox in the light of the recent death of the composer’s widow Freda at the age of 92.

I remember it was quite a warm September afternoon in 1959 when I walked from Warwick Avenue tube station to the house at No.8 and stood at the doorway feeling both nervous and expectant. But before I rang the bell a strange thing happened. I glanced down at the doorstep and saw an empty milk bottle in which there was a piece of manuscript sticking out of the top. I simply had to inspect it! Amongst some scored out notes and hieroglyphics was a message - ‘2 pints, please’! Gosh, I thought, a ‘real’ composer must live here – instructing the milkman with messages written on discarded fragments of his music. It made a rather mundane and ordinary gesture seem like an event! A smiling Freda opened the door and ushered me into the front room where Lennox was reading the newspaper. He jumped up at once and immediately greeted me with his wonderful charm and exquisite manners. ‘Ah now, where shall we start? I do think your incidental music for the play is quite a step forward from the songs’. Obviously he’d meticulously studied the bits and pieces I’d sent him - and we started from there.

 

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Yehudi Menuhin – a centenary appreciation and reminiscence

Robert Matthew-Walker

Yehudi Menuhin

From time to time in the history of music, we encounter those who, because of their extraordinary gifts, were able to acquire as children a finished technique which enables them to appear before the public as prodigies - a technique which others may take many more years to perfect - yet in such instances more often than not we look forward to their maturity, when their more experienced interpretative qualities will have mellowed along with their own distinctive personality.

Yet with Yehudi Menuhin, who was born on April 22nd 1916 in New York, music-lovers of earlier generations were astonished when, as a child, he appeared in public with the understanding and insight of an adult artist.

His parents were music-lovers, and, when just nine months old, he was taken to his first concert - his parents could not find a baby-sitter for the evening. His behaviour on this occasion was, it appears, exemplary, and thereafter the infant accompanied his parents on all of their regular concert-going.

 

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A Conversation with Rachmaninoff

From the Musical Opinion Archives – VI [October 1936] By Basil Maine

Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff began by making a safe assumption. ‘I am a pessimist,’ he said. ‘You know that.’ I had heard as much, of course; and I knew that on the concert platform his look was always that of a world weary man. But I suspected that this was part of the façade that every public artist must devise for self-protection.

‘Well, the last time he was in England, this pessimist had a revelation,’ he continued. The world-weary look gave way to a mask-like smile. He spoke slowly in a deep, remote-sounding voice, as if he were not so much a presence as a medium.

‘I was playing at Oxford. Except for the first few rows where the dons and their wives were sitting, the audience consisted entirely of young people. And they were so keen, so attentive; you cannot imagine. I had thought that in England, as in some other countries, the new generation had no interest in music. But no. I could feel that they were interested as soon as I began. And I must tell you, it was not at all an easy programme. To tell the truth, I had been a little nervous. But when that feeling came to me, the feeling that they were vitally interested after all, I was very, very happy.’

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Remembering Alberto Ginastera – a centenary tribute

Barbara Nissman

Alberto Ginastera

It’s hard to believe that April 11, 2016 marks the 100th birthday of the Argentine composer, Alberto Ginastera. His music still sounds as young, fresh and joyful as the first time I heard it. I was a freshman university student, and it seemed as if every pianist in the school was learning Ginastera’s First Piano Sonata. I was immediately smitten. The infectious Latin American dance rhythms coming from the practice rooms were irresistible. This was pure “gut” music: music that teased the brain, went directly to the heart and was felt strongly in the pit of the stomach. I confess that I was initially drawn to its visceral energy, its brilliant virtuosity and natural pianism, and those strong, driving rhythms. This was fun music— sheer magic— and so well crafted.

Ginastera had an instinctive knowledge of the keyboard. He possessed an uncanny ability to exploit a wide range of its coloristic and rhythmic possibilities, as well as its lyrical and percussive qualities. Similar to Liszt, he always knew what was innately “pianistic,” what would work and fit comfortably under the hand. Whether he was writing a string quartet, a concerto for harp, piano or violin, or exploring the possibilities of the human voice in one of his remarkable operas, this talent was always evident. I knew that he had studied the piano, but wondered after hearing his Harp Concerto if he had ever studied the harp— what it could do and couldn't do. I asked him, to which he laughed and replied, “Yes, and the things they said it couldn't— but really could do. That's the creative imagination and also the technique.”

One of his masterpieces, the Variaciones Concertantes, featuring twelve members of the orchestra as soloists, perfectly manifests his skillful virtuosity. As he himself said: “I write as a spiritual necessity... and above all I want my work to be understood. The music must reach the public through an interpreter, and a successful work, I think, must emerge as a virtuoso piece for the players.”

 

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Wolfgang Holzmair and programming the art-song today

Andrew Davidson

Wolfgang Holzmair

A striking feature of the contemporary musical scene is that song remains the main-stay of popular culture but is increasingly marginalised on the classical front. The conundrum is presumably not unrelated to the fact that popular song deals with the here-and-now, to which a mass audience can recognise and react to instantly, while classical song is mostly tied to poetry that ranges over many subjects, requiring the listener to engage at an intellectual level as well as an emotional level. And since most songs last only a few minutes, they can seem rather simple to classical audiences accustomed to symphonies, operas and chamber works.

One way of re-kindling interest in the song recital could be to give programming a higher profile. Of course programming receives a lot of attention from singers and pianists, who have to select thirty or so songs from a seemingly endless resource in a wide variety lf languages, nevertheless reviewers rarely pay close attention to whether the results make a cohesive whole, to the overall import. The almost-retired Wolfgang Holzmair is one singer for whom song-programming has always been central, and some of his compilations demonstrate what an effective tool it can be.

Wolf’s Spanish Song-Book (Bridge) Although the Spanish Song-Book contains some of Wolf’s greatest songs, presenting the whole work is a challenge. The published order, which Wolf apparently oversaw, puts ten fervent religious songs at the beginning followed by thirty-four secular songs of varying length and character, creating two unequal parts with very different preoccupations. Complete performances are rare. Holzmair has put the religious songs in the middle of the secular set, flanked by the two dialogue songs each shared between the male and female voices, making a sort of mystical centre. And the secular songs are arranged so that the first group takes a fairly lively approach to the trials and tribulations of love, while the appearance of death in those immediately after the religious interlude ushers in a more thoughtful mood. The whole thing comes together.

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The Symphonies of John Pickard: an overview

John Pickard

Richard Whitehouse

The premiere of the Eighth Symphony by David Matthews in Manchester last April marked something of a resurgence in the genre continued that July with the Fourth Symphony from James MacMillan. More symphonic premieres are to follow, with the Fourth Symphony by Matthew Taylor in 2017 and, before that, the Fifth Symphony from John Pickard this June.

Throughout the past quarter-century, Pickard has been a significant presence on the UK new music scene. A prominent academic (he is currently Professor of Composition and Applied Musicology at the University of Bristol) and perceptive writer, he has also amassed a sizable catalogue of works across which a symphonic strain predominates – whether in his series of vividly evocative tone poems, oratorio Agamemnon’s Tomb, concertante works for trombone and for piano, five string quartets and five symphonies. Although in his earlier years he was sometimes spoken of alongside such contemporaries as MacMillan, the late Steve Martland and Mark-Anthony Turnage as an ‘angry young man’ intent on confronting the then musical establishment, any provocation was always grounded in intrinsically musical considerations.

 

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Ferruccio Busoni - The Six Sonatinas: An Artist’s Journey 1909-1920 – conclusion

His language and his world by Jeni Slotchiver

Ferruccio Busoni

This is the concluding second Part of the author’s in-depth appreciation of these greatly significant piano works. Part I was published in our issue No 1504 July-September 2015.

At summer’s end, 1914, Busoni asks for a year’s leave of absence from his position as director of the Liceo Musicale in Bologna. He signs a contract for his American tour and remains in Berlin over Christmas, playing a Bach concert to benefit charities. This is the first all-Bach piano recital for the Berlin public, and Dent writes that it is received with “discourteous ingratitude.” Busoni outlines his plan for Dr. Faust, recording in his diary, “Everything came together like a vision.” By Christmastime, the text is complete.

With the outbreak of war in 1914 and an uncertain future, Busoni sails to New York with his family on 5 January, 1915. He writes to Egon Petri: “When shall we ever meet again? This state of uncertainty (Planlosigkeit), after ten years of deliberate constructive work, at the climax of my vital strength, is the hardest of all blows to bear!” He is battling disillusionment, yet hopes to proceed with his opera Arlecchino. Modeled on 16th century puppet plays, the composition is an organic link to Dr. Faust. Busoni takes the two librettos with him. His letters describe a growing isolation: “When one is no longer master of one’s own freedom of movement, life has no further value.” He abhors the provincial limitations of American audiences, and expresses fear that the war in Europe will cause cultural destruction. He is consumed by a paralyzing anxiety about the future, and this precipitates a desperate emotional state. Busoni writes, “I shall never overcome this criminal amputation on my life.” At a time when the composer’s attention is tightly focused on the realization of a masterwork, Busoni is obliged to proceed with the scheduled tour, and in so doing; he nervously anticipates a creative drought. Compounding these difficulties, New York is deluged with celebrated artists in exile from Europe. Audiences are in thin supply. He writes to Edith Andreae, June 1915, “I didn’t dare set to work on the opera...for fear that a false start would destroy my last moral foothold.

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