Programme notes in a digital age


For the last couple of months I’ve been busy writing programme notes for the RSNO. One of the issues being debated at the moment is, “Do we really still need commissioned programme notes in the digital age?” After all, can we not just look information up on Wikepedia or Google? Well, you could, but I think you’d be missing out on a lot, and here’s why:

  • Every concert is carefully put together – programme notes reflect this, making reference to other works in the concert and any links between them.
  • There may be a narrative to the season – for instance the RSNO and Prokofiev are both in their 125th Anniversary seasons. To celebrate this, they are performing a complete cycle of the Prokofiev piano concertos across two seasons.
  • Programme notes can maintain the ongoing narrative of this series.
  • An orchestra may have other events around a particular work or composer. These can be advertised alongside the programme notes.
  • By using the same writers on a regular basis, the audience come to recognise and trust individual writers.
  • House style – commissioned programme notes mean the orchestra has some kind of control over the style of writing, meaning the notes can be pitched how the orchestra would wish.
  • If, like me, the writer is also a performer, it is another way of building personal links between musician and listener.
  • Practicalities – if someone chooses to read programme notes on their phone or tablet during the performance, it’s horribly distracting for those around them.

So remember that by buying a programme, you are buying a “personalised” approach to that evening’s concert, which can only enhance your experience of the music.

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Prokofiev Discover Day – Cinderella – 9th April Edinburgh


1935 pic-standing-thm“Well, right now I am working on a symphonic suite of waltzes, which will include three waltzes from Cinderella, two waltzes from War and Peace and one waltz from the movie score Lermontov. The War and Peace has just been brilliantly produced in Leningrad, where the composer Cheshko made an especially noteworthy appearance as a tenor, giving a superb performance in the role of Pierre Bezukhov. Besides this suite, I am working on a sonata for violin and piano [No. 1 in F minor], upon completion of which I will resume work on the Sixth Symphony, which I had started last year. I have just completed three suites from the Cinderella ballet and I am now turning the score over to copyists for writing the parts, so that most likely the suites will already be performed at the beginning of the fall season”
The above quote from 1946 gives us a wonderful insight into the workaholic Prokofiev’s mind. At the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 9th April, I will be exploring the background to Prokofiev’s Cinderella, written in the grand fairy-tale tradition of the great Tchaikovsky ballets. You can find details of the event and booking information here.

Cinderellajpg
We will set the ballet in its historical context, looking at Prokofiev’s return to Russia in 1935 and what this meant musically to an artist used to working in the liberal environment of Paris and the USA.
Cinderella was written during World War II, a surprisingly productive period for Prokofiev. Other works from this period include one of his best-loved symphonies, no. 5, the film score to Ivan the Terrible and the epic opera on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Prokofiev became almost obsessive about this opera, and it eventually brought him into conflict with Stalin’s notorious culture minister, Zhdanov.
In the morning we will look at the first part of Prokofiev’s career, prior to taking a closer look at the 4th Piano Concerto, which the RSNO will play with Alexander Lazarev and Nikolai Lugansky in the same programme as Cinderella.
This rarely performed concerto was one of several commissioned from prominent composers of the time by Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. Neither he nor Prokofiev was particularly well-versed in social etiquette, which led to some frank exchanges between the two men! You can read more on Wittgenstein in  Manus Carey’s article on the RSNO Website.
Come along to the Usher Hall on 9th April to find out more and to welcome our special guests from Scottish Ballet, music director Richard Honner and Chief Executive and Artistic Director Chris Hampson, fresh from their winter production of Cinderella.
Oh, and don’t forget to buy your tickets to hear Lazarev and Lugansky perform these great works in Edinburgh (15th April) and Glasgow (16th April)!

James MacMillan


 

As the RSNO celebrates its 125th Anniversary, we are celebrating many musicians who have played an important part in the orchestra’s life. On 17th-19th March in Glasgow/Edinburgh/Aberdeen  we hear a joint commission (with the RLPO and Bournemouth SO) by Sir James MacMillan, a composer who has frequently featured in our concerts since the 1990s.

The first MacMillan piece I played with the orchestra was “The Berserking” for piano and orchestra. I confess to having more than a passing interest in MacMillan’s music at this point: as a composition student at Manchester University I had missed studying with him by one year… Talk about bad luck! What immediately grabbed me about his music was its passion, the wide range of colour he draws from his ensembles and the rhythmic vitality. There have been many emotional journeys for me in this music, not least our performances of “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie” on tour in Sweden in 2004.

As I’ve delved further into MacMillan’s music, I’ve increasingly been drawn from his orchestral to his choral music, which for me is where he is at his most engaging. I remember hearing the beautiful “Strathclyde Motets” at the Edinburgh Festival two years ago interspersed with music from the Renaissance, and my YouTube discovery (I did buy the CD afterwards!) of “Tu es Petrus” for choir, organ and brass written for the Pope’s visit to Westminster Cathedral in 2010. Go and listen to it – it’s mind-blowing.

MacMillan isn’t just a man for the big occasion, though. He is equally at home writing for amateur groups: “The Galloway Mass” for congregational singing springs to mind and it has been announced recently that he is writing a piece for the GSA choir to sing at the Mackintosh Building’s reopening. He is a passionate advocate for music education and in 2014 he founded “The Cumnock Tryst”, a four-day music festival based in the town where he grew up. MacMillan himself acknowledges that if it weren’t for the musical experiences he had there as a boy, he may not have become a musician.

Twenty years after my first encounter with MacMillan’s music, I still wish so much that I’d coincided with him at Manchester University. I’m sure I’d have learnt much about composition, but more than that, as a small-town girl myself, I share a belief with him that music-making of a high standard is for everyone, everywhere.

Prokofiev Discover Day RSNO 7th November


When I was asked last year if I was interested in delivering one of the RSNO’s new Discover Days on Prokofiev, I immediately jumped at the chance. I’ve been giving pre-concert talks for a few seasons now and I love the opportunity that that gives me to meet our audience and to share my love of music. It would be a real pleasure to spend a whole day looking at one of the most enigmatic and talented composers of the 20th century.

Prokofiev is a fascinating character. Highly intelligent (a whizz at chess, apparently!), he wasn’t always the most patient man. Many found him aloof, even arrogant. Ploughing through archive material online, this comes across for me even in his appearance. Matisse captures his latent energy perfectly in this sketch:

Prokofiev_as_drawn_by_Henri_Matisse_1921_-_Gallica

Prokofiev’s energy comes across in his performances, too. There’s a wonderful recording online of him playing his 3rd Piano Concerto in 1932, which became something of a signature piece for him: he was a superb pianist as well as composer. The melodies are shaped with a beautiful rubato and yet there is a potent energy driving the music forward. You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIxqUOUeVzM

One thing that I am very much looking forward to on the Discover Days is discussing Romeo and Juliet (and, in Edinburgh, Cinderella) with Scottish Ballet’s conductor, Richard Honner. I played Romeo with Scottish Ballet and Richard back in the late 90s before I joined the RSNO and I know he shares my love of this music. We met a few weeks ago to swap ideas. I won’t spoil the day by telling you what we talked about, but I will tell you how much I enjoyed my tour of Scottish Ballet’s premises at Tramway – a far cry from West Princes Street, where the company was based in my time.

That brings me neatly onto the subject of our venue for the Discover Day in Glasgow: the RSNO’s New Home! Actually, I hardly know it myself yet – we’ve only been there for a week, but I can tell you that it is incredible! We are so fortunate to have it built for us.

So what are you waiting for? The chance to explore some wonderful music with me, to share the passion of Romeo and Juliet and to be one of the first people to see inside the RSNO’s New Home. I’ll see you there on 7th November!

To book, phone the RSNO on 0141 225 3552

Berg 7 Early Songs


I’ve just finished translating the lyrics for Berg’s “Seven Early Songs” and “Das himmlische Leben” from Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which the RSNO will be performing on the 8th and 9th May.

The texts are very different. I tackled the Berg songs first for two reasons: it’s the bigger text, but it comes in smaller chunks. The 7 poems are written by some of the biggest names in German poetry, such as Hauptmann and Rainer Maria Rilke.

There is some really beautiful writing here. I particularly connected with Hauptmann’s “Nacht”. As a keen mountain sportsperson, I loved his depiction of a mountain landscape. I also loved Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Traumgekrönt”. He really is one of the best German writers of the turn of the 20th Century.

The music is really sumptuous, too. I heartily recommend going along to listen to these songs. Why not have a look on the RSNO website:

http://www.rsno.org.uk/live/concert-listing/concert-information/?c_id=262&action=Read%20More
which will be given by my good friend, Ursula Heidecker-Allen.

To whet your appetite, here is Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Traumgekrönt” with my translation:

Traumgekrönt
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
Das war der Tag der weißen Chrysanthemem,
Mir bangte fast vor seiner Pracht…
Und dann, dann kamst du mir die Seele nehmen
Tief in der Nacht.
Mir war so bang, und du kamst lieb und leise,
Ich hatte grad im Traum an dich gedacht.
Du kamst, und leis’ wie eine Märchenweise
Erklang die Nacht.

Crowned in a Dream
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

It was the day of the white chrysanthemums,
I all but trembled at its radiance…
And then, then you came and took my soul,
Deep in the night.
I was so afraid, and you came lovingly, gently,
I had just thought of you in a dream,
You came, and softly, like a fairy tale,
The night resounded.

It’s that last line – it is so laden with meaning!

The Mahler text was a completely different and, I think, greater challenge. The challenge is to translate the text in a way that preserves the innocence and naivety of the words and yet doesn’t sound silly in the target language. The hardest bit was the verse where St. John allows his lamb to escape whilst Herod lies in wait. Quite brutal and yet totally innocent at the same time.

As a translator, I also have to remember that the audience (or at least some of them) will read my translation whilst they listen to the concert. I therefore like to try and make it easy for them to hang onto the German text as it is sung. A little bit like subtitling, this means picking up on words that sound similar in both languages, sometimes playing around with the word order and, as far as I can, trying to keep line lengths pretty similar.

This is where being a musician helps. You have an innate sense of flow and rhythm. It’s a huge challenge, but I love trying to make this balancing act work.

Mahler 4 Translation


Mahler 

Following on from my Mahler 8 translation for the RSNO last season, I’m delighted to say that I’ve been commissioned to write the translation for Mahler 4 for the concert in May 2015. The text is from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”, so once again a text from the 19th century tradition.

Mastersingers of Nuremburg programme note


Written for RSNO, season opening concert 2014-15:

Overture to The Mastersingers of Nuremberg
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

“Its splendour seems truly magnificent […] and the burghers’ dwellings seem to have been built for princes. Indeed, the kings of Scotland would be glad to be housed as luxuriously as the ordinary citizens of Nuremberg.” It is this vision of 16th century medieval Nuremberg that Wagner seeks to convey in The Mastersingers Overture.

Unusually for Wagner, who generally drew on mythological material, this opera is based on the real-life guild of Mastersingers whose rules and contests were depicted in Wagnenseil’s Nuremberg Chronicles of 1697. He even went so far as to use real historical figures such as the cobbler Hans Sachs and the marker Beckmesser.

When Wagner began work in earnest on the The Mastersingers of Nuremberg in 1862, the first two operas of The Ring cycle were complete and he had recently composed Tristan and Isolde. Around this time, he was influenced by the philosopher Schopenhauer, who believed music to be the superior art form. One of the themes of The Mastersingers is music as a craft and perhaps Wagner needed to reflect on how a more opulent musical style might support dramatic action prior to writing the final two great operas of The Ring cycle.

In The Mastersingers, the young knight, Walther is in love with Eva. Hearing that she is to marry the winner of a song contest the following day, he seeks to enter the guild of Mastersingers. Beckmesser, also in love with Eva, rejects his application, but Sachs is impressed by the young man’s art and undertakes to tutor him in the ways of the guild. Beckmesser secretly learns Walther’s song but lacks his artistic flair. Walther duly wins the contest and the opera closes in celebration of the enduring nature of German art.

The Overture to The Mastersingers was first performed in 1862, six years before the opera’s premiere and was immediately hailed as one of Wagner’s best works. It opens with the pompous music of the guild, including brass fanfares that expand into a luxurious full orchestral passage. The quieter middle section recalls the rich harmonies of Tristan and Isolde, as we hear the love themes of Walther and Eva played by the strings. Gradually the mood becomes more frivolous as the apprentices and townsfolk appear with an irreverent version of the opening theme in the woodwind, taken up by the strings. After a short climax, Wagner cleverly combines the opening theme, Walther’s prize song and the apprentices’ music. The excitement builds once more and the music ends in a blaze of glory.

Pre-concert talk on Arvo Pärt


One of the things I really love about giving pre-concert talks is being able to share new discoveries of mine with the RSNO audience, and hopefully enthuse them to go searching for new musical worlds themselves.

Last week was a real voyage of discovery for me. I’d previously felt a little put off Pärt’s music for two main reasons:

Firstly, the tag of “sacred minimalism”: I admit, I’m no great fan of minimalist music and, on top of that, this particular tag comes across to me as being a little trite. However, whilst Pärt’s music often uses simple textures and small units of music, it doesn’t have that incessant twitchiness and rapidly revolving short motifs that I find hard to cope with in other minimalist composers’ music! Rather it has a stillness and meditative quality about it which is really quite peaceful and beautiful.

Secondly, I don’t mind admitting as a viola player, that Pärt can be quite painful to play, as a lot of it involves static muscle-use! Sometimes it’s hard to get beyond that pain barrier and into the music itself.

The other revelation for me was that Pärt was more associated with the avant-garde in his earlier music. The Third Symphony that the RSNO performed last week is a transitional work between these styles. It was also dedicated to Neeme Järvi and in exploring the links between the two men, I came across Credo, the work that led in part to both musicians leaving Soviet-occupied Estonia. It was such a mind-blowing piece that I listened to it twice through in succession. 

 

 

 

 

 

Completion of Mahler 8 translation


I’ve just completed and submitted my translation of Part 2 of Mahler 8 for the RSNO’s concert in May.

As with any translation, it’s been quite a voyage of discovery, so I thought I’d share some of the decisions I had to make along the way.

I always find it takes me a while to really slot into the register of the text, and it’s one of the things that I always need to revisit once I’ve got into the text. In this text I had to decide to what extent I wanted to reproduce the nineteenth century style of the text in translation. This became an issue particularly with regard to the biblical sections of the text. Should I use pronouns such as “thee” and “thou” or should I go for the more modern “you”? In these sort of scenarios, the translator really needs to go back to their skopos or brief. As my primary goal was to go for a semantic translation, I decided on  “you”. The translation is designed to be followed by someone listening to the symphony and I want them to be able to follow the meaning of the text quickly and easily without it distracting them from the music. The musician side of me coming out, I guess!

My secondary goal was to get across some of the artistic content of the text and to respect its poetic register. To that end, I sometimes omitted the pronoun altogether: “You Merciful One” just does not sound right in context!

At risk of opening myself up to being accused of inconsistency, the desire to replicate the poetic aspects of the text meant that occasionally I’d use more “opaque” terms. One of my readers asked if they were allowed to use a dictionary to check what “amosite” was. (If you’re interested, it’s an “iron-rich amphibole asbestos, mined in South Africa”!). I asked her if she’d rather I used the more transparent “asbestos” to translate “Asbest” and straight away she said no! Sometimes words have slightly different connotations in the two languages or their meaning and usage has shifted over time. In this case “asbestos” would have sounded fairly incongruous in a poetic text as we tend to think more of garage roofs when using that word!

I used unrhymed free verse for my translation. I did use a thesaurus fairly extensively, but I was quite surprised that it wasn’t too difficult to produce a text that had a fairly even rhythm. I think there are two factors at play here: a) German and English belong to the same language group and b) I think as a musician I have a more developed sense of rhythm in a text than other translators. I also enjoy looking for that feeling of flow, which also helps.

My final act before submitting the translation was to listen to the symphony and follow the text with my translation. It was a really satisfying thing to do actually, and I felt a real sense of achievement from it. I feel so privileged to be able to combine my two great loves – music and the German language. I hope that other people enjoy my translation as the RSNO performs Mahler 8. 

If you live in central Scotland, please do come along. The concerts are in Edinburgh on 30th May http://www.rsno.org.uk/whatson/?c_id=129&action=Read+More&month=3&year=2014 and Glasgow on 31st May http://www.rsno.org.uk/whatson/?c_id=127&action=Read+More&month=3&year=2014.