RSNO. Sondergard, Williams: Beethoven, Mahler, Sibelius (Usher Hall: 21 April ’17)

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Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

“Their playing of Sibelius’s Finlandia was one of the best, if not the best, I have ever heard, live or recorded. “

Editorial Rating: : 4 Stars: Nae Bad

One of the excitements of live music is that you never know quite how it is going to turn out on the night. You think you’ve got it at rehearsal, but performance is something different. Only a very few orchestras turn out a consistently really high standard, time after time.

After two years in Edinburgh I am becoming increasingly impressed by the quality of the local bands, and Friday’s concert contained some excellent playing in a well chosen, thoughtful programme that while relatively well supported was deserving of a larger audience. Clearly the Florida sun has sown benefits. It was a very good concert indeed.

The RSNO’s opening numbers are sometimes a little shaky before they get into their stride. Not so tonight. Their playing of Sibelius’s Finlandia was one of the best, if not the best, I have ever heard, live or recorded. The opening chords of the brass were well rounded and melodic whilst still conveying the angst of the Russian threat to the mother country in this highly nationalistic piece. Not a trace of blaring or vulgarity. The mournful strings provided a similarly well-rounded tone in what was a very well executed opening number, convincing and moving. Applause was loud and long. Deservedly.

It was a very interesting choice to follow with Mahler’s Der Knaben Wunderhorn, a less austere work than Kindertotenlieder, or, for example, Das Klagende Liede.   Five songs were selected from the original 24 settings, covering nature, folklore and soldiers’ tales. Baritone Roderick Williams gave a well-executed performance in which the orchestra again shone, but perhaps a little too brightly. There were issues of balance between soloist and orchestra and one would have preferred the soloist not to have referred to his music.   This notwithstanding, the intriguingly named “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish” was sung and played beautifully, and was well balanced. Also, “Where the Fair Trumpets Sound” was the star of the set with gentle orchestral backing, melodic singing.

After the interval it was back to Sibelius and The Oceanides. I confess I had not heard this 11 minute miniature before and I loved it. It started with a most unusual but effective piece of string writing that reminded me of sea mists and tides, to be followed by the increasingly effective flute section before building to something stronger involving the whole orchestra evoking the ocean’s sheer vastness and permanence. Commissioned and first performed in America, one critic described the new work (1914) as “the finest evocation of the sea which has ever been produced in music”. Well, there is plenty of competition for that, not least Debussy’s La Mer, but it certainly stands the comparison.

Our evening was brought to a close by Beethoven’s Symphony No 1 in C Major. Critics have often categorised his first two symphonies as Mozartian, with the composer coming of age with the Eroica. I am not so sure. The first few bars’ shifting harmonic sands alone, quite startling in early 19th century Vienna, point to something more revolutionary, and although there is a classical theme overall  – such as can be found in both Mozart and Haydn –  as Tovey said, the symphony has “more of the 19th century Beethoven in its depths than he allows to appear on the surface.” This contention was certainly supported by Thomas Sondergard’s interpretation, which was mature and grounded in what was a hugely enjoyable performance by an orchestra that was clearly loving what it was doing. So did we.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 21 April )

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Edinburgh Quartet (Queen’s Hall: 27 March’17)

Painting by Erik Petrie

“The band’s playing being bolder and more committed as they got into their stride”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

The life of a professional musician has always been tricky, whether you were Mozart churning out prodigious quantities of glorious music against impossible deadlines and demanding creditors, Shostakovich keeping Stalin and his apparatchiks at bay, or even today as a rank and file player with the necessity often to freelance and keep several irons in the fire, both for the benefit of professional development and regular employment.

All these aspects were present at Monday’s Queen’s Hall recital by the Edinburgh Quartet. First, the line up. The first violin desk has been filled by a variety of (very talented) artists since Tristan Gurney left for London last year and was tonight filled by Zoe Beyers. Second violin Gordon Bragg also plays for the RSNO and is currently touring with them in Florida, his place being taken on the night by Tom Hankey. Catherine Marwood ably took the viola desk on behalf of Fiona Winning, leaving only Mark Bailey on cello as part of the regular band. I am afraid, notwithstanding good individual playing, it showed – a bit. Talented individuals do not necessarily an ensemble make.

The evening started with Mozart’s String Quartet in D Major K575. Composed towards the end of his life and published posthumously it is an enjoyable work that allows each member of the band to show off their individual talents, a wise choice here in that their experience of playing together is limited. It made for an easy to get into start to the evening, with Catherine Marwood’s viola to the fore supported by Mark Bailey’s Cello.

There followed Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 1 in C major. A short (fourteen minute) romantic work, yet of some intensity but also tunefulness, it surprised and pleased the audience as not coming as too much of a shock after the Mozart; the band’s playing being bolder and more committed as they got into their stride.

The evening concluded with Beethoven’s String Quartet in C major No 3 ‘Rasumovsky’ one of three so named after its sponsor, the Russian Ambassador to Vienna. Again, the work offers plenty of scope for the individual players to respond to, as well as some good ensemble playing as the Quartet were by now fully warmed up. There was real verve in the opening movement, particularly in the Allegro vivace, smooth togetherness in the Andante con moto quasi allegretto supported by well despatched cello pizzicato and really good ensemble playing in the Menuetto. The work was brought to a close with a high sprirted, high speed Allegro molto.

The concert was part of the Edinburgh Quartet’s season branded ‘EQ:Revolution’ and as before an artist from a different genre offered a complementary interpretation. In this instance it was Erik Petrie who went on stage, as he has done at others, to describe three colourful artworks, influenced by music and revolution, commissioned by the Quartet. The theme is certainly applicable to Shostakovich but more nuanced elsewhere. Petrie is an artist and was a little uncomfortable talking, understandably so when mentioning that the artworks were available for sale, albeit with the very noble cause of thereby providing financial support to the Quartet.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 March)

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A Step In Time (The Magnuson Centre, Edinburgh Academy: 10th & 11th March ’17)

“The group demonstrates all the qualities that make show choirs eminently lovable”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

In large part thanks to a popular American TV series from the 00s, being in a show choir has become a lot more socially acceptable – even “cool” in some circles – in recent years, so it was great to see a packed house for Edinburgh University Footlights’ latest show, and a stage full of diverse young people who love being there.

In A Step In Time the group demonstrates all the qualities that make show choirs eminently lovable: fun renditions of upbeat popular tunes, killer vocals, show-stopping choreography and smiles big enough to fill the room. But behind all the glitter and grapevines, did the performance itself deliver a knock-out punch? In my opinion, not quite.

Opening number Step in Time set the scene well as a lively and energetic introduction to the night’s proceedings with some clever, subtle changes in lyrics and arrangement to make the song feel like the choir’s own. Accompanied by full-on intricate choreography, it says something about the fitness and dedication of the group that they were even able to breathe for the next ten minutes, let alone perform song after song, complete with dance routines.

For me, it was a shame there was significantly more focus on the “show” rather than the “choir” elements of the performance, with complex choreography and numerous costume changes detracting from the vocals throughout. Harmonies and power were often lost in the frantic flailing of arms and apparel, and what remained was at times imprecise and unnecessary. The flow of the performance was also quite stilted, with some uncomfortable lengthy pauses between songs, hindering the overall enjoyment of the night.

However, it was in the simpler and more stripped backed numbers where the group really excelled: the 90s medley, Seasons of Love and the 00s medley in the second half really showcased the strength and depth of the choir’s vocal talents, and it’s a shame we didn’t see more consistent top quality vocals and arrangements like these from the choir as a whole throughout the show. There were also some beautiful stand-out solo and small group performances (specifically Believe, She Used To Be Mine and I Know it’s Today) which highlighted some really gorgeous individual voices.

I would have preferred more quality over quantity in terms of the choreography, using it cleverly in specific numbers to give wow-factor, with greater focus on the basics of group singing as the overarching emphasis. Overall I think the group tried to do too much too often, which left the lily not just gilded, but smothered in cream and cherries too.

Still, it was an entertaining performance from a talented bunch of young people, that was, on the whole, very enjoyable. I look forward to the next one.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 March)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Benedetti; Oundjian; RSNO (Usher Hall 10 Mar.’17)

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“I was happy to leave the concert hall with a spring in my step and wish them bon voyage on their long flight to Orlando”

Editorial Rating:  3 Stars

The RSNO are rounding off their glorious 125th Season with a tour of the USA, Florida to be exact. Why Florida? Because classical music’s largest constituency is older people, and Florida is a state where they are legion, both full time residents and the “Snowbirds” who go for the winter. And Florida has more world-class concert halls than any other state in the USA. Five, no less. They played their final concerts in Glasgow on Thursday, and Edinburgh on Friday. There was a real whiff of excitement in the air. The last time they toured the States was 1992, before the fabulous Nicola Benedetti was born.

So Friday night’s audience, loyal to their orchestra and adoring of their favourite soloist, were in no mood to be troubled by the niceties of musical criticism, they were there to have a good time, and they did. Alas, it is the job of the music writer to point out the subtler issues.

The first half of the concert was, on paper, a romantic’s dream, Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, followed by the ultra romantic Bruch violin concerto. This writer anticipated both eagerly. Both disappointed.

Principal flute Katharine Bryan led off the Debussy confidently and competently in what is an extremely exposed solo in a difficult register. The orchestra answered in a well played ten minute exposition of the theme, but only on a fairly superficial level. This work has mystery, shades of eroticism and soul, and we didn’t get this. Indeed, in the entire first half of the concert Peter Oundjian’s baton was there for the score, but too restrained in the exposition.

By all accounts Nicola Benedetti had given a bravura performance of the Brahms’s Violin Concerto in Glasgow the previous evening. Tonight we were all well up for the Bruch, arguably the most romantic violin concerto ever written, if not as great a work as the other three German concerti: by Beethoven, Brahms, & Mendelssohn. While one doesn’t want the soloist – or orchestra – to wear their hearts on their sleeves, there was much more that could have been brought out of the work by the soloist in terms of phrasing, power and sheer bravura of performance. Competently executed and, yes, restrained, we were left feeling puzzled and short changed. The presence of sheet music tucked away on a stand suggested a performer perhaps a little weary before the USA trip, allied with, unusually, no encore. Yet, of course, in the eyes of the RSNO claque she can do no wrong, and was applauded enthusiastically. The orchestra played well.

Live music is a fickle mistress and often provides the unexpected, both disappointing and pleasing. What on earth could the RSNO bring to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and what new is there to write about it?

Well, the RSNO brought a fresh, lively approach to the work from the beginning of the well known opening theme. It was as if they had received a half time pep talk. They made a lively pace throughout, notably the cellos in the andante con moto, along with the cleverest, anticipatory build up to the final Allegro. Clearly a game of two halves, I was happy to leave the concert hall with a spring in my step and wish them bon voyage on their long flight to Orlando

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 10 March)

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Interview with Lisa Kowalski, producer of Ten Years of Taylor Swift

“Taylor Swift is not only an amazing songwriter with relatable and eloquent lyrics, an incredible singer, but she’s also just such a lovely person

Lisa Kowalski is a young Scottish singer songwriter and performer – and most of all she is a huge Taylor Swift fan. To coincide with Taylor Swift’s ten year anniversary as a performer Lisa decided to celebrate and to put on an event to bring together all those ‘Swifties’ out there. Well, some of them at any rate.

Lisa’s event ‘Ten Years of Taylor Swift’ was held in Glasgow and Edinburgh and featured a fantastic collection of young upcoming musicians from around Scotland who each performed their own versions of Taylor Swift classics, from her earlier country tunes to some newer pop princes anthems.

Ten Years of Taylor Swift Show (organised by Lisa Kowalski, January 2017). Our review here.


Why Taylor Swift?

She’s not only an amazing songwriter with relatable and eloquent lyrics, an incredible singer but she’s also just such a lovely person. She’s so kind to her fans and she’s so real. I also just connect with her lyrics and how passionate she is about songwriting. Writing music is my favourite thing to do and she’s really inspired me to be brave and vulnerable when I write my feelings into songs.

How big is the Swiftie community in Scotland?

Taylor sold out the Hydro in minutes, so I would say there’s a fair amount of Swifties! I’ve made lots of friends in Scotland that are her fans and it’s nice to get to talk about her and her music to people without them getting sick of me.

Have you had support from Swifties outside of Scotland?

We had a Swiftie from England fly up to Scotland for the last show which was pretty insane! He also helped us to set up a promotional website for the event which has ended up being really useful.

For this year’s event we had someone from America ask to play and cover all of the plane costs herself! Unfortunately we had all of the acts sorted but it’s pretty insane to have so much talent asking to perform and going to such great lengths to do it.

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You had a fantastic line up of young artists performing in your show. How did you bring the talent together?

All of the acts are people I’ve seen perform at gigs that I’ve also done! I chose these people not only because they’re all absolutely incredible singers and performers but also because I consider them all good friends of mine now! The show really brought us all together and I’m grateful for it.

They’re all so different from each other in the way they sing and perform – some prefer acoustic, others prefer the band. Some have higher voices, others have low. Some have loud voices, others have softer voices. Either way they’re all extremely talented in their own special way and I could never choose a favourite.

Were all of the artists who performed already devoted Swifties before the show?

Not all of them are huge fans but they still managed to take the songs, make them their own and perform them with so much passion. Everyone who performed likes different kinds of music and writes their own amazing songs but they all came together to celebrate one pop/country artist and they did it amazingly.

220px-p1070865_louvre_tc3aate_de_fausta_ma4881_rwkHow did the event in Edinburgh compare to the first event in Glasgow?

Both events were so amazing but the Edinburgh gig was in a smaller venue which I preferred. It made the show more intimate as everyone was much closer and you could see everyone dancing and smiling a lot more clearly which was really nice.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known starting out on this journey?

There’s going to be some ups and downs but it’ll be worth it! Working really hard is definitely the key for success but when it pays off you’ll be so relieved and happy that you devoted as much time and energy as you did.

Do you plan to organize more shows in the future?

There’s a lot of factors to consider before we dive into organising another event as it definitely isn’t easy but I would definitely love to! Making other artists and an audience happy made me really happy and I would love to do it all again.

Lisa, you also performed at the show. As an artist do you have anything exciting lined up for 2017?

Within the next month I’ll be releasing my debut EP of original songs! I’m really proud of all the songs on there and I can’t wait for people to hear them in a new way! I’ll be performing at the VAMOS festival this year which is exciting!

If you could ask Taylor Swift one question what would it be??

It’s hard to just choose one question! I would probably ask for advice on making myself known in the music industry and building a loyal fan base.


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RSNO: Remmereit, Bryan. Vaughan Williams, Martin Suckling, Ravel. (Usher Hall: 3 Feb ’17)

The Lark Ascending

“In Katharine Bryan we heard some of the finest flute playing around today”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The RSNO chose interesting, offbeat fare for their Sir Alexander Gibson Memorial Concert on Friday night, by way of complete contrast to what will be an immensely popular Rachmaninov/Tchaikovsky melange this coming week. Good for them, and I am sure that the great man, who brought so much to the RSNO in his extraordinary twenty-five year tenure and yet died at the relatively young age of 68, would have thoroughly approved.

The first piece was not without controversy: Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending transposed for flute by the RSNO’s Principal Flautist, and soloist on the night, Katharine Bryan. This well known work – indeed, it is number one in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame (make of that what you will) – while for some overexposed, is to me almost sacred. I first heard it as a schoolboy played in a concert in Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire by one of my peers, Richard Deakin, who went on to teach music at the Royal Academy and found the Orchestra of St John’s Smith Square. An early summer evening by the Thames with the fading sun streaming through the Abbey’s stained glass windows … and the piece moved onto my spiritual and emotional hard drives for ever.

To transpose it to flute had me and a number of others worried. Yet for me, full of reservation, it was a triumph. The warmth and roundness of the flautist’s timbre brought a new dimension to the work outwith the capacity of the violin. Bryan’s playing was exquisite: her control of her breathing in long passages extraordinary, her phrasing superb, her control and precision utterly convincing. So much so that I shall buy the recording. Now there’s a compliment in this age of streaming and downloads.

Composer Martin Suckling came on next to introduce his world premiere performance of our next piece,  The White Road. Interesting as this prologue was, it later became clear  – as our flautist returned  in a shimmering white dress rather than her earlier red version –  that this was a fill in. No matter, it gave the next quite difficult fifteen minutes some context.

Notwithstanding the composer’s aspirations the work essentially was a back and forth between sharp musical bites from the flute echoed by percussion, with minimal brass, wind and string support and unconvincing body bops by the soloist to accentuate the to and fro with little added value from the microtones. Melody went missing until the end of the work and I found it unremarkable. Fairly typical of the modern genre, I suppose, but it really only came into itself at its close.

Our nerves were soothed by Bryan’s blissful rendering of Massenet’s Thais as an encore, accompanied only by harp. Luscious.

Following the interval we were treated to Daphnis and Chloe Suites No’s 1 and 2. This piece is a conductor’s nightmare in terms of its fluidity and apparent lack of time signature, so it would be timely to point out that the baton was being held on the night by Arild Remmereit standing in for the indisposed Peter Oundijan. A fine job he made of it (and for the rest of the evening, too). You never felt the orchestra were out of control and their disciplined playing impressed. The work opened with a flute solo and lo and behold, there was Katharine Bryan again, now in black dress, back in her familiar principal flute’s chair. The Danse Guerriere at the conclusion of the first suite showed real verve and the Lever de Jour opening Suite No 2 was well realised and convincing. Remmereit got everything he could out of the band in the Danse Generale which ended our evening with a – or rather, several – bangs.

So in conclusion,  this was a concert that entertained with the familiar, challenged with new takes on familiar themes, and also with new material. Sir Alexander would have been proud of his orchestra’s playing and in Katharine Bryan we heard some of the finest flute playing around today.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 3 January)

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Ten Years of Taylor Swift (The Mash House: 14 Jan ’17)

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“A fun and fantastic showcase”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Not being a huge Taylor Swift fan myself I was slightly apprehensive before the show. However, I must admit I was very pleasantly surprised. This gig was set up by 16 year old Lisa Kowalski, who with some help from mum managed to put on an entertaining evening any event organizer would be proud of.  The three hour set – a good length! –  showcased a range of Taylor Swift’s material – from her younger country days to newer pop songs.

Before the show there was an excited buzz around the room and I could immediately tell I was surrounded by some devoted Swifties. There was not much in a way of an introduction before singer Matthew Gibb, together with the backing band, started off the night with his original version of ‘Blank Space’.

Soon it was clear to see that despite their young age these are all very talented singers and musicians including The 45 and Beth Swan. Although the backing band added an extra kick of enthusiasm to the night I was glad that there was an acoustic session in the middle, where you could clearly hear each performer’s voice.

Each act enjoyed great stage presence but there were three performers who really stuck out – Ashleigh Burns, Olivia Dawn Haggerty and Lisa Kowalski herself.

17 year old Ashleigh from Glasgow gave an impressive performance with her versions of ‘Love Story’ and ‘Trouble’. Her strong, soulful voice in combination with a charming presence and confidence on stage made it a great set. Olivia impressed with her beautiful ballad version of ‘All Too Well’ whilst Lisa was not only good at talking to and entertaining the crowd, but vocally she also did well, with a good range and a convincing ‘attack’. Although not pitch perfect at all times these girls have serious energy and potential.

All night everybody’s enthusiasm was so contagious that I couldn’t help bopping along and I even got caught up in the whole sing-along spirit of the night! I can only recommend this particular show if you are a big Taylor Swift fan but I really loved the whole idea behind it – celebrating an artist together with lots of like-minded fans. The whole event was brilliantly organized and you could clearly see the huge effort put in from all parties. It was definitely a fun and fantastic way to showcase young talent from across Scotland.

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Reviewer: Iona Young (Seen 14 January)

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