Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Always new music to discover.ย 

At this time of year I’ve often been attending the fabulous Harrogate Wind Chamber music course (now held in York). The vagaries of scheduling mean that some years the course coincides with one of my other favourite events, the Great British Beer Festival, as it does this year. 

So I’m thinking about what I might have been playing if I were in York, and as luck would have it our regular wind quintet has a meet up scheduled for next week. I’m hoping to re-acquaint myself with the Partita by Irving Fine as well as introduce it to my fellow quintet members.

Harrogate has always been somewhere to discover unfamiliar music, and so without a recent visit I’ve had to find other sources. The clarinet player in our quintet is always unearthing some of the more obscure compositions for the ensemble, so much so that I don’t think we’ve crashed through the same piece twice in the 18 months or so that we’ve been meeting. I’ve also returned to a rejuvenated resource, Brandt’s Woodwind Quintet Site. Rejuvenated mainly because Andy Brandt has retired from full-time professional playing and continues to augment this wonderful site way beyond his original “list” from over 40 years ago. While the listing of quintet compositions and arrangements is unparallelled, he’s now adding historical essays about the development of the ensemble. Highly recommended. 

As a result of this I may spring a new piece (to me, anyway) on the quintet next week. The Quintet Op. 52 by Theodor Blumer has somehow escaped my attention until now. Tricky, but sounds worthwhile… 


Is music a competitive sport?

Following hot on the heals of the announcement by the BBC that they are going to commission a “Choir of the Year”-style competition for amateur orchestras (here), there has been a fair amount of discussion and debate about whether this is a good idea. Or is it simply another cheap-ish way to fill air time by using participants who don’t demand media-style salaries?

In real life, nearly everything is competitive in one way or another, either directly or implicitly, leading to a hierarchy of price/cost/importance/prestige*. The BBC in particular has a long track record in musical competition, including the “Young Musician of the Year” started in 1978. There are legion other musical contests – Cardiff Singer, Leeds Piano, etc etc. The very act of auditioning to play in an ensemble is competitive. It’s a way of life for Brass Bands.

Is this then the start of the same process for orchestras? Traditionally, in Great Britain at least, non-professional orchestras were often somewhat different. For one thing they are made up of a mix of complete amateurs, music teachers, semi-professionals and often a professional conductor and/or leader. Often they rehearse with available players and supplement the numbers with paid musicians come the concert. The way the competition is currently arranged will exclude many ensembles – more than 40 but less than 75 members, for example – and the amount of time required may well interfere with the normally running.

I’m still trying to make up my mind whether I think it’s a good idea. I know that my regular orchestra (< 40 regular players) will not be participating. I’ve long used the term “amateur orchestra”, but the term “community orchestra” is a far better description in most cases – a local group for local players. Should a community be competing?



* take your pick

A short history of my favourite music

A friend has inveigled me into exposing my history of music-listening via a series of Facebook entries. I decided that actually it would be fun to add them here, where I can get a chance to expand them.

Here’s the first:

Day one of musical memories.

Glenn Miller

String of Pearls – Glenn Miller and his Orchestra

This was on a 78 we used play on an old portable record player in the loft at home in Sittingbourne. There’s a little piano “tinkle” at around 2:00 which used to sound like someone dropping a glass, but the up to date rendition makes it clearly sound like a piano. The great thing about the 78s were that they were so thick and heavy there was little danger of a sub 10-year-old damaging them more than they were already, other than by accidentally dropping it out of the loft hatch (never did, of course).

There were several other old vinyl records we used to play, but this was probably the best music. Others you won’t be seeing included “Six White Boomers” (1963 A side, the B side was “I’ve Lost My Mummy” – I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out the artist); “Milord” by Edith Piaf (never really liked that one), and an usual 10-inch long player of a Slavonic dance or something (struggling with that one even with the internet)


Not so much playing

I’ve sometimes wondered how it must be for a player of a less frequently used instrument when it comes to playing a concert where you’re either only in one or two pieces or you play very few notes on the ones you’re in. Well tonight it’s been both. Playing 2nd bassoon in a concert that featured solely strings in three out of the six pieces was always going to be one of those quieter evenings. As it turned out, there weren’t that many notes in one of of those three pieces either.

So I did get the opportunity to listen for a change, and very lovely the pieces were. (for the record, they included Elgar’s Sospiri and an arrangement of the slow movement of his String Quartet).

Spare a thought for the triangle player, though. About 10 “strikes” in one piece. At least he got to go home early ๐Ÿ™‚

Reasons for optimism

Often I don’t find many reasons for optimism, since I tend to be of a more cynical nature. However, after a week in Harrogate at the White Hart Hotel playing almost all day on the great wind chamber music course there, and with the second meeting of a local wind quintet approaching I am finding myself looking forward for a change.

The wind quintet is a fragile beast, and it’s been said that the bassoonist (i.e. me) is the only person who enjoys it. Since the flute struggles to be loud enough, the oboe is forever delving into the quacky end of its range, the clarinet has mostly virtuosic stuff and the french horn player has to play quieter then he or she would like, there is a certain truth there. Not only that, but the personalities often attributed to the players (I’ll spare you the stereotypes) mean that keeping a group of five wind players together can be a challenge. The more regular chamber ensembles, for example the string quartet, have a more homogeneous nature, and also the presence of a clear leader (primo violino) means that decisions can be made!

Still, there is plenty of music, both original and arranged, for the quintet; from the classical starting point of the Reicha and Danzi quintets to the up-to-date jazz-influenced music of Jim Parker, with something from everyone in between. This year’s Harrogate was the opportunity to discover some previously unknown pieces to me: two of the four quintets by Johan Sobeck, a bohemian clarinets from the 19th century; a wind quintet by Howard Brubeck, of Dave’s two brothers. These were definitely worthwhile additions to the “playable” repertoire – hence my optimism.

It’s that time again..

..for another blog entry just to keep up the average of nearly 3 a year ๐Ÿ™‚

As I mentioned in my last blog post nearly two years ago sometimes having a “foot in many camps” means that actually some of the camps get a bit neglected. Perhaps 2014 should be the year in which we decide WHICH camps we’re still going to stay in? The easy availability of so many sources of information, entertainment and commerce on the internet certainly encourage a magpie-like approach which requires quite strong self-control to avoid. I don’t have that sort of self control short of turning off my computer and walking away. Yes, I still have a “computer” and I still sit at a desk despite having access to the more mobile forms of technology. Possibly it’s an age-related thing that means that the two large screens on my desk are more attractive to my be-spectacled optics than the smaller screen real-estate presented by the phone and tablet.

So has anything fundamental changed in the last year in my relationship with software and music? Actually probably not. I’m still happy playing the bassoon, and I increasingly use electronic copies of music to play from when at home – the libraries of the International Music Score Library Project provide a valuable resource for rehearsal material of the orchestral music I typically play. I have acquired a Nexus 7 – fabulous piece of technology in its own right – but for quite a lot of the time it doubles as a (albeit high-function) alarm clock, replacing a Joggler that died. Probably the most significant piece of technological change for me was the new camera, I have jumped ship from a Canon DSLR to the estimable Olympus Micro-Four-Thirds format EM5. Has my photography significantly changed though? Again, actually not, although the improvement in size & weight mean that I tend to take the camera with me more often.

A year of incremental improvement then? Certainly. I’d love to say the same about all of the software deployed where I work, but, well, a supertanker takes a long time to turn. Oh, and there’s the new car too which probably contains more software than all my previous ones put together. Has it made it any better to drive? Possibly not, but then I’m relatively undemanding in my requirement for a car – I like it to start, go, and stop with as little drama as possible. Which it does.

Looking forward to 2014!

Amazong, really

OK, so it’s a slightly lame play on words, but I had one of those little electronic interactions yesterday that adds a bit of cheer. You know, something small happens that has involved (possibly) two human beings, albeit via some interface that separates them but it gives you confidence about what goes on behind the interface.

In this case I submitted a couple of small updates to the titles and artist name for a couple of CDs (by the Gurzenich Fagottquintett) on Amazon’s UK website. I got the acknowledgements back within a very short period (saying they agreed with my updates), and I figured that was probably a machine talking. But to my surprise, the entries were also updated and within half a day the indexing was working as expected. So now you can easily find the three latest CDs by this esteemed bassoon ensemble with one search!

Well done, Amazon.

The Big Bassoon

Recently I renewed acquaintance with an instrument I used to own, a Moenig low-A contra-bassoon. Why is the “low-A” important? Well for one thing it adds 18-20 inches of pipe to the conventional contra, in search of that extra semitone so that you can say “I can play the lowest note on the piano”!

Actually I was borrowing it back from the consortium of three friends who bought it so that I could play the contra part in Elgar’s 1st Symphony, with Bushey Symphony Orchestra. And splendid fun it was too, although there aren’t many places during the piece where the contra “stars”. Mind you, the contra rarely stars, but it DOES bring an added solidity to the woodwind sound, and the tall instrument I was playing gives you a certain prominence in the orchestra.

The concert itself was really good, it’s one of the best orchestras I’ve played in. It also featured Marianne Cotterill singing the gorgeously moving swan-song of Richard Strauss’ career, the Four Last Songs, and a piece from the neglected composer William Alwyn. The Elizabethan Dances, while reminiscent of the film music for which he is probably best known, were a jolly antidote to the seriousness of the rest of the concert!

Now on to Schubert’s Great C-Monster…


Orchestral rehearsals start again this week! The programmes for the two orchestras I play in regularly look really good this year – perhaps they always do early in September. At Aylesbury we start with the “New World” symphony by Dvorak, with Vaughan Williams’ “London” Symphony and Sibelius’ 1st later in the season. Full details here.

At Bushey Symphony Orchestra the season includes some really interesting things such as the Saxophone Concert by Michael Torke, Elgar’s 1st Symphony, Strauss’s Four Last Songs, and the Elizabethan Suite by William Alwyn.

With by bassoon having had a late summer overhaul, I’m nearly ready. One day I’ll have practised enough ๐Ÿ™‚

On the (french) horns of a dilemma

As a musician there’s nothing I like better than playing with other musicians. In fact I would almost go so far as to say I HATE playing on my own (well, a plausible excuse for not practising, anyway). So it’s been an interesting experience recently playing with other musicians and really not enjoying it. I realised once again also how powerless you are as a single player in a larger ensemble to actually control what’s going on or at leastย influence it. Particularly when you have 37 bars rest.

So, picture the scene (and I have purposely changed the instruments to anonymise my comments and avoid any awkwardness), containing the following elements:

  • A flute player who taps his feet, inevitably at a different time to the conductor.
  • An aged clarinet player who can’t hear the conductor is always asking “where are we going from”
  • A leader who gets lost
  • A solo pianist who is young and hasn’t played with a less-than top rate orchestra (ahem) and thinks that they can change speed on a sixpence
  • A conductor (bit hard to anonymise) who not only has difficulty following the pianist, but also has a habit of beating two beat bars as two down beats
  • A viola section who only appeared on the evening of the concert
  • A brass section light of three trombones and a horn
  • An orchestra over-reaching itself with the repertoire

I could go on, but I expect you’re getting the picture. Now at this point I should probably confess myself. I’d only been to two rehearsals, after a previous experience with this orchestra.

On mature reflection of course I could ask questions such as: “Who am I to make these judgments on the orchestra?”, “Where to I get off saying that the orchestra is over-reaching itself?”, “If they only picked easier pieces to play, how would they learn anything?”. Plus many others in a similar vein. So my dilemma is this – do I cast myself adrift from this orchestra to avoid the uncomfortable times (yes I could never really be a teacher, could I?), or do I continue to add some experience (and a needed extra bassoon) to the orchestra and learn something myself from the experience. A real dilemma since neither answer is ideal. I’d love some thoughts.