Saturday, September 24, 2022

Franck, Walton and Rachmaninov to open ADDA's new season

 The first concert of a new season prompts an air of expectation. A cursory glance of the program suggested nothing particularly special, excepting, of course, the anticipated and always delivered excellence of this orchestra, conductor and auditorium. Billed were a nineteenth century tone poem by an often-overlooked genius, a viola concerto, perhaps the best known in the repertoire and an ultra-late Romantic symphony in all but name, all pieces where familiarity, at least of style, suggested few surprises. How wrong can a concert goer be?

Cesar Franck’s Le Chasseur Maudit is, put simply, a painting in sound. Or perhaps it is film music without the film. It’s a tone poem, that abstract form that the nineteenth century invented to allow a composer to display aural emotional interpretation to project onto the scenes of a story. The very idea of the tone poem is Romanticism enshrined. Cesar Francks pictures are painted with broad, free brushstrokes, but in heavy paint which texture is the surface. The thick orchestration adds drama to the musical story, which was always vivid and clear, if a tad literal.

William Walton’s Viola Concerto followed with Joaquin Riquelme as soloist. Here the textures were light, the musical language suggestive of emotion, rather than the painting of pictures. In a beautifully reflective first movement, the soloist apparently is reading from a personal diary while the orchestra, here and there, adds its comment. The compositional skill is so great that this really is a conversation between soloist and orchestra, their contributions equal, their weights different.

There’s a real burlesque of a scherzo to follow and then perhaps an over-long finale that sometimes reaches for the grandiose, but memories of the first movement’s vulnerabilities always keep the music’s feet on the ground, while its upturned face searches for clouds.

Joaquin Riquelme’s playing was both virtuosic and quietly spectacular throughout. His sympathetic and informed interpretation of the substance of the piece was matched perfectly by Josep Vicent and the ADDA orchestra. At times, it seemed that the soloist was engaged in conversation with the orchestra, but it remained a conversation that was completely intelligible and never dominated by either party. The viola’s understated presence is very easily drowned by orchestral intrusions that are too loud and, apart from a couple of woodwind passages in the first movement, this trap was consistently and skilfully avoided. The audience reception was beyond rapturous. Joaquin Riquelme offered a contrasting encore, being an allemande from a Bach suite.

And then we met Sergei Rachmaninov, but the Rachmaninov from late in his life, at a time when he no longer needed to write music the merely pleased an audience. Not that he ever did! But his Symphonic Dances stand out from the rest of his orchestral writing in that they are more abstract, less prone to indulge in sugary sweetness.

On this occasion, the piece came across as autobiographical. Perhaps the intense rhythmic sound of the opening pages is a reference to the first symphony? This would explain why the rhythm disappears from view. There were passages that were reminiscent of the second piano concerto. There were others those seemed lifted from the second symphony. And, with such a big and varied orchestra, why did the composer include a solo piano part? Certainly, it was not to fill out the harmonies. Surely this is self-referential? And there was another section where the piccolo featured above percussion. Surely this was a memory of Petrushka? And what superb orchestral playing this was, coupled with precise and insightful interpretation that imbued every section of the peace with sense and meaning.

There were two encores, one unexpected, one almost the Adda signature tune. The slow movement from Dvorak’s New World is an unusual encore. but it did provide a superb contrast to the big sound that had preceded it. The Danzon number two by Marquez is now so familiar to the Adda audience that it is almost included de rigueur. But superbly so. Two lollipops of quite different flavours.

But without doubt, the Walton Viola Concerto and Joaquin Riquelme’s stunning performance will live long in this concert-goer’s memory.  

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Contemporary music in ADDA


As a prelude to their forthcoming season of orchestral concerts, the ADDA orchestra of Alicante under their inspired and clearly inspiring conductor and artistic director, Josep Vicent, offered a programme of contemporary music free of charge to its subscribers. Perhaps this might have been a chance for the players to loosen their fingers, lips and hands before embarking on their new season. If that were the case, one wonders how many other orchestras in this world would rise to such a curtain raiser if it involved learning a full programme of complex pieces unfamiliar to them, some of which they might never play again!

And so we were presented with four works, three of which were composed recently, and a fourth that was premiered in the 1950s. Here we had four composers, all of whom presented their own, very personal and mutually contrasting musical languages. Just like the label “classical music” is useless as an indicator of style, given that it apparently spans close on a thousand years of art from Leonin to Lim, one must also insist that “contemporary music” is about as much use, being nil. There are clearly almost as many styles of contemporary music as there are composers of it. And the idea was illustrated beautifully in this programme, which seemed to take its audience on a journey from a strange place back to their musical and physical home. The term “brilliantly conceived” certainly applies to the choice of programme.

We began with Metastasis by Yannis Xenakis. In theory, this is a representation of the mathematics of architecture as music. It is a piece where dynamic, texture and line are conceived to illustrate an emotional response to the parabolas of Le Corbusier’s Phillips Pavilion, a building that has no straight lines, no right angles and thus an inner space that surely disorientated. Al least until you got used to it… which is a useful phrase for anyone who might feel “frightened” or “dismissive” of contemporary music.   

Xenakis used sketches of the building’s form to create a musical score, drawings whose shape determined the notes to be played. Like the building, the musical representation might take some a while to appreciate, its glissandi and sustained space-creating string murmurings punctuated by flashes of percussion and eyerolls of woodwind. But familiarity with the piece, at least for this listener, mimics what I feel looking up towards the ceiling of any great building. How far does it go? Is what I see mere illusion, or is it stone, concrete or glass? Xenakis, by the way, was the civil engineer on Le Corbusier’s project. In the 1950s. he was the bloke with the slide rule.

Second on the bill was Mosaicos de Arena Errante by José Javier Peña Aguayo, a graduate of both the Julliard in New York and Valencia University. In form, this world premiere was the evening’s ground breaker. It was an orchestral piece featuring, concerto-like, a brass quintet, a Puerto Rican bomba group and a dancer. The brass quintet was Spanish Brass, no less, the bomba group comprised Marina Molina, Daniela Torres, Ambar Rosado and the dancer-choreographer was Isadora López Pagán. I mention these names in recognition of the massive contribution they all made in the realisation of this piece and, indeed, making it a convincing musical and theatrical experience.

I will ignore the programme notes and try to describe what I took from the piece. For me it was a narrative which told of the realisation of identity. Oppressed by history, slavery and colonialism, the people who formed the central idea of the piece fund themselves disorientated in a new place. They could not make sense of their role, their lack of status or their surroundings. Memories of their African origin regularly surfaced, but these were broken by the oppression of circumstance and strangeness of surroundings. This was depicted by broken lines, irregular harmony and techniques such as the brass players blowing through the instruments rather than making notes. The dancer, meanwhile, presented angular contortions that mirrored distortions of sound and, presumably, pain of suffering.

Gradually, however, memories of past grew stronger, perhaps more relevant, and identity is rediscovered. The rhythms of an African past begin to dominate. The rhythms take over and impose their needs on the sound, prompting the dancer to become both more expressive and more animated, but also celebratory. The culmination was a glorious, complex, but utterly accessible rejoicing in rhythm. A people had found themselves again.

David Moliner’s Figuratio I - Mein logos came next. This was a percussion concerto performed by its composer. The soloist also contributed vocally to emphasise particular aspects of the music. Essentially, this came across as a fast, slow, fast structure, where the percussion was virtuoso in style throughout. There were some wonderful moments in the quieter sections when thin mallets made sounds of distant bells, thus creating landscape. The orchestral percussion players were heavily involved as well, at one point to the extent that string players holding a tremolo could not be heard above three percussion players combined. But this is a minor criticism of a work that banged with vitality.

The evening’s second world premiere was the symphonic poem, Alí y Cántara by Oscar Navarro. At times, stylistically, this music could have been written in the late nineteenth century, at least in its harmonies. But there were Middle Eastern shapes here too, just the right side of cliché to avoid evoking images from Hollywood’s technicolour Panavision era of spectaculars.

The piece followed a narrative provided by the story of Ali and Cántara, ancient lovers who, according to the legend, combined to name the city of Alicante. The piece’s sections described episodes of the story impressionistically, but also vividly. And what developed was something remarkably familiar to the audience and yet expressed in a new language. Festivals in this part of the world often involve the re-enactment of legendary battles and rulers. Moors and Christians are what they are called and the musical language of Alí y Cántara increasingly evoked the sounds of street festivals, but in a more subtly nuanced form provided by the orchestral textures. But by the end, the musical statement was noticeably located in the wind instruments and percussion, and, for a while, this orchestra sounded like a symphonic band. It was musically the most conventional work of the evening, and also provided the most direct, accessible narrative. And it worked beautifully.

Rapturous applause prompted Josep Vicent to offer two encores. John Williams’s Theme from Schindler’s List was followed by a local favourite, Danzon No2 by Arturo Marquez. Out of six composers represented, five are still alive, Xenakis have died in 1997. His music, as with everything else in this wonderful evening, is very much alive.


Monday, July 18, 2022

Anglo Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson


This particular reviewer rarely writes a negative review. If it didn’t communicate with me, theres no need to assume that it will not communicate to you. A positive review has to concentrate on what was communicated, whereas a negative review must live in what was not felt, and that list is infinitely long, so where to start? “I liked it” or indeed “I didn’t like it” say nothing about the work in question, only about the reviewer, and this unknown person, often hiding behind an alias, should never be at the centre of the review.

So when it comes to Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson, why should I begin with “I didn’t like it”? Well at least it gets the opinion out of the way, because in the case of this particular book, it needs to be said. Anglo Saxon Attitudes felt like the longest book I have ever read. It wasn’t, but it did feel that way for most of its duration. But the reason for my opinion is complex and, I suggested earlier, has more to do with me than the work.

Details of the book’s plot are available elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the important element is the fraudulent planting of a pagan erotic sculpture into the grave of a Dark Ages Anglo-Saxon bishop that was excavated decades ago. The apparent authenticity of the find had to be catalogued, described, interpreted. For half a century this practical joke at least influenced thinking, at least amongst interested academics, on the cultural and religious origins of the race that now inhabits the country we now call England. Hence the book’s title, rooted both in the historical relics of the Anglo-Saxons, for whom “England” would have been an unknown label, and for the modern British for whom both the concept of “Anglo-Saxon” and “England” are both reconstructed myths.

Amid the need to keep alive the myth of national identity and culture, a certain person who was involved in the original discovery finds he hast to continue to perpetuate the lie. He has personal and professional reasons. He also might even believe it was true. To some extent he has built his career on the existence of the find and, equally, he built half of his life by shacking up with the girlfriend of the person who played the original practical joke on his father by planting the object in the tomb and then claiming its authenticity. Decades have come and gone. Lives have been lived. Relationships have been severed, remade and broken by death and estrangement. Gerald, who knows the truth about several things, has lived with the deception, but dismissed it as possibly false, gives given the character of the person who admitted carrying it out. Gerald now has decided it is time to come clean and tell the story.

But to whom should he tell it? And how? Reputations are at stake. Water under the bridge wont flow back the other way. People have moved on. Or have they? Anglo Saxon Attitudes thus inhabits a society with what could be described as a rarefied atmosphere. These people are of a certain social class, attend gentlemen’s clubs, regularly drift into French, for some reason, when English is just not good enough. A single paragraph of the thoughts might refer explicitly but opaquely to five or six of the book’s characters, any of whom might have been encountered during the fifty-year span of these memories. For anyone living outside donnish society of the public school, Oxbridge or academe, these people are barely recognizable as English, as archaeological, perhaps, as something dug up from long, long ago. And yet they are the mouthpieces via which the concepts of contemporary identity and culture are lengthily examined.

A strand that figures vividly in every character’s mind, if not explicitly in the English culture being examined, is sex. The erotic nature of the apparently pagan idol in the Anglo-Saxon tomb places a large ellipsis after every mention of the word sex in the book. We have characters who are openly homosexual in a society that has laws against the practice. We encounter respectable men who put themselves around a bit, and women who express their desires via euphemism. And also some who do not. And theres a lot more besides. Perhaps too much. Perhaps… For this reader…

Anglo Saxon Attitudes is a complex and ambitious novel. For this reviewer it falls short of all its implied goals because it concentrates too heavily on a narrow, unrepresentative section of the nation, was consistently patronizing to working class attitudes and featured characters who spent most of the time living myths. Perhaps that was the point… Perhaps… Why not read it and see what you think?

More Fool Me by Stephen Fry


I’ve just read More Fool Me by Stephen Fry.

I finished the book – I don’t know why.

There’s oodles of self-mockery

Couched in torrents of post-hoccery,

Where processions of media dahlings

Murmurate like cantankerous stahlings

Especially at night, often in clubs,

Where one avoids hoi polloi snubs.

In rarefied air of this sort

One can visit the bog for a snort,

Meet actors, directors, all of the kind

While imbibing until dawn’s drunkenness blind

Afore a stumbling or taxi home

Or to one’s next work randomly roam.

Always a sense of the naughty boy

But planned by a promoter’s ploy.

A complex sort, our Stephen,

Whose path in life was oft uneven

Despite a comfy start in middle classes

Before he took to lads, ignoring lasses…

But that’s now a long time past

In memoirs already so vast

This is already number three

While the author’s fifty is yet to see.

No doubt there’s many more

O’er which fans will eagerly pore

But for me, this falls below a parity

Which demands purchase for charity,

Second hand, perhaps twice lived,

Experience cleaned, already sieved

But out of synch, bereft of rhyme,

One wonders if it’s worth the time.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Conrado Moya plays marimba and Shostakovich 10 brings the house down in Alicante


A piano concerto played in a transcription for marimba is not a common event. It is even rarer when it is the Concierto Heroico of Joaquin Rodrigo, which, unlike his moderately popular harp concerto and his enormously popular guitar concerto, is itself also quite a rarity. And so, this first half of the programme promised to be a doubly rare experience.

Rodrigos Concerto is an eclectic mix. Across four movements his largely neoclassical style is here and there mixed with some modernistic tendencies, especially in the rhythms and the harmonies within the orchestral tutti. These elements are placed alongside some themes whose banality, on occasions, could generally and generously be described as “popular”. These apparently disparate strands are woven into the piano part, which ranges from the virtuosic to the repetitive. On disc it comes across as an inconsistent and only moderately successful work. Episodic would be the least critical label that might be attached to the music. Refreshing, different, and surprising would be an alternative.

But this concerto also has music of great effect, immediacy and expression. And all these qualities found expression in the playing of the marimba soloist, Conrado Mora, and in the lively interpretation offered by Josep Vicent and the ADDA orchestra.

The marimba soloist can muster only four simultaneous notes instead of the piano’s potential of ten, but the resulting lightening of texture seemed to make the musical argument, hardly linear in this piece, rather clearer. And Conrado Mora played with such virtuosity and energy the audience probably felt exhausted just watching. The arrangement itself and its execution were real triumphs of musical imagination, and the performance was rapturously applauded. An encore for solo marimba featured the instrument in a more reflective style. I think it was a piece by Keiko Abe, but please do correct me if Im wrong.

The second half of the evening was devoted to Shostakovich’s tenth symphony, a performance that the program predicted would last 57 minutes. Josep Vincent’s tempo at the start and end of the first movement and the start of the fourth was slow, very much slower than the overall moderato of movement ones marking. This gave the performance weight and a psychological intensity that brought the composer’s internal struggles to the fore to great effect. The balance, of course, was achieved by playing the first movement’s central outburst significantly quicker than moderately.

The scherzo was a gnashing snarl, exactly as it should be. But when the symphony is played in this way, the third movement is transformed into perhaps the emotional centre of the work. This music becomes wholly personal, probably a neurotic’s plea to be noticed as an imagined waltz is shared with a certain Elvira in what can only be a musical dream. And then, after a return to the continuing darkness, we suddenly go to the circus and meet tumbling clowns pulling faces at us, or perhaps mocking a recently deceased dictator. The performance was not only vivid, but also brilliantly interpretive. Everything made sense here.

The evening and the season finished with a rip-roaring Marquez Danzon No2 and the audience went home impatient for the start of the new season.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Julia Fischer and Academy Of St Martin In The Fields at ADDA, Alicante

There are times when words fail, and this is one of those occasions. Feel free to read no further, because what follows cannot be described better than simply “perfect”.

The orchestra was Londons Academy of St. Martin In The Fields and the soloist-director was non-less than Julia Fischer. All potentially perfect thus far, it seems.

The program in the ADDA auditorium, Alicante, was an intriguing mix, with two pieces from the classical or early romantic era, mixed with two pieces from the non-atonal style of the twentieth century. Such programs can often come unstuck through a lack of focus. This one worked perfectly.

The Rondo For Violin And Orchestra Deutsch438 by Franz Schubert which began the program was a celebration of the melodic, beautiful lines for beauty’s sake. Julia Fischer’s solo playing appeared to be effortless, displaying the kind of complete perfection and ease that can only be achieved through absolute dedication. But what was also obvious was that this playing, orchestra and soloist combined, was not founded merely on technique, but of an undiluted joy that came from being able to communicate via music. And what was also clear from the start was the strong and mutually enjoyed bond that developed between the orchestra in the guest director. And perhaps this is a close as Schubert approached to the concerto. It was perfectly delightful.

Brittens Variations On A Theme Of Frank Bridge is a work that, personally, I have never warmed to, its highly episodic nature often not sustaining my interest through a recording. But what recorded sound often cannot convey is the sheer beauty of the sonorities that Benjamin Britten exploits in the piece. The Academy Of Saint Martin In The Fields not only played this piece perfectly, but they also brought out all the nuances of expression that Britten wrote. Hearing the work for the first time in concert had the effect of assembling what had previously only been experienced as isolated sketches into a major work. Separately, these pieces sound interesting. Together the create a picture of a personality, far from perfect, but perfectly portrayed. The experience was perfectly magical.

Mozart’s Rondo For Violin And Orchestra K373 is hardly his most memorable work. But in the hands of this orchestra and with Julia Fisher as soloist, this was five minutes of a standup comedian, a monologue full of wit and humor, like a child captivated by the process of keeping a balloon in the air. A perfect image.

By contrast, the Chamber Symphony Op110a by Shostakovich that followed presented a work of vast, contrasting depth and not a little psychological anguish. Dedicated to the fallen in war, but certainly with its gaze focused firmly inwards, it presents an acerbic view of humanity. Perhaps the performers might fall at this very different hurdle? Well, they did not.  Far from it. The playing and interpretation probably got even better, if there is a level higher than perfection. The eighth quartet, of which this chamber symphony is an arrangement by Rudolph barchai, is monumental. It also finds much of its power in the interaction, often argumentative, between the solo instruments. Potentially this tension could be reduced in the version for string orchestra, but the addition of the double bases married to the perfect cohesion of the string players and, not least, the skill of the arranger ensured that none of the drama, none of the impact was lessened. I proved perfectly moving.

A theme from a Tchaikovsky Souvenir was a little lollipop offered as an after. After the drama of the Shostakovich, it was a little out of place, but nothing slipped below the established level of consistent perfection.


Monday, May 16, 2022

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Daniel Harding and the Swedish Symphony play Brahms 1 and 3 in ADDA, Alicante


Basically, in normal circumstances I would not regard a concert offering two Brahms symphonies as resembling a cup of tea. If thats not mixing too many metaphors… But an advantage of subscribing to a series of events is that it prompts one to attend all of them and not to try to edit experience out of reality on the basis of preconceived standpoints. To have missed Daniel Harding with the Swedish Symphony Orchestra in Brahms Three and One in Alicante would have been a big mistake.

My problem with Brahms is long standing. It’s the same with many nineteenth century novels. I can’t empathize with the characters. I feel they are often preoccupied with irrelevance, and I hear the main mode of expression as circumlocution. I have always tended to find musical equivalence of these perceived shortcomings in the work of Brahms until very late in his creative career.

But my criticisms of the nineteenth century novel could come about because this particular reader does not fully enter into the world that is being described, or the lives that are being lived. It is not a criticism of Shakespeare that his work does not address quantum mechanics. Likewise, I should not criticize Brahms’s compositions for living within the scope of their time. So, it was this new attitude of toleration that I began this first exposure to the presence of Daniel Harding!

Daniel Harding does not simply conduct the music, he shapes it. He rarely beats time and equally rarely makes bold, eye-catching gestures aimed the audience’s attention. What he does do is coax the music into shape via visual interpretations of its meaning, gestures that clearly convey the right messages to his players. Here in these Brahms symphonies, the musical experience unfolds like in the novel, the themes almost characters in the telling of the story, the harmonies the events, which often surprise.

But to shape a piece of music into such a drama, one also needs an orchestra that can deliver the parts. And here in Alicante, the Swedish Symphony Orchestra clearly has such a superb understanding with its principal conductor that collectively they understood precisely what the demands and they clearly can always deliver it.

As a result of this chemistry that was so strong it could almost be felt by the audience, we heard two beautiful performances of these cornerstones of the repertoire. Both fresh and surprising throughout, these performances of the two Brahms symphonies prompted this skeptic to listen to them again and again.