Here are some concert notes written by our conductor, Mark Finch.
Saturday 8th March 2008 at 7.30pm
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‘Goodbye To All That’
(ii) Sentimental Song
(iv) Comic Song
(v) Summer Song (Le Tombeau de Delius)
(vi) Crown, Wheel and Pinion — A Patriotic March
Michael Gryspeerdt, whose grandfather was Flemish, was born in London in 1927. He studied medicine at St. Thomas’s and after National Service, including a short spell in Egypt, was posted to Hereford and subsequently settled in Gloucestershire with his wife Colleen in 1959. He began composing aged nine and took up the French horn in his teens. Michael had lessons in counterpoint from Cathedral organist Herbert Sumsion and enjoyed playing the horn in the Gloucestershire Symphony Orchestra for 40 years; informally, he also played jazz trombone.
Following retirement from a busy life as a doctor in 1987, he composed music full-time. His compositions range from pieces for solo instrument and chamber ensemble, to choral and full orchestral works. His music has been performed frequently in the Gloucestershire area and at Three Choirs Festivals, has been broadcast on Radio 3, and also played in Europe and America. Sadly, Michael became seriously ill in early 2000 but was able to complete the symphony he had been working on for a year which had been commissioned by the GSO for its centenary. A Tribute concert (which he attended in failing health) was given by the Oriel Singers and GSO in June 2000 when the symphony was given its first performance. He passed away two months later.
Assembled from music largely composed in early life, Goodbye to All That was first performed in 1974 by the Bedfordshire County Youth Chamber Orchestra in which the composer’s niece played under Michael Rose. Five exercises in pastiche are framed by a Prologue, in which time moving backwards to the taps dripping in the bathroom, and an Epilogue, where it moves forwards again as if returning to the real world. Sentimental Song is an Elgarian miniature which shows that there are plenty of beautiful tunes still to be written in C major. The composer’s dry wit becomes increasingly evident in the Tango where the rhythms of the accompanying band are marked ‘secco’ – the contrapuntal flourishes, with some violins hanging on by their fingertips, recall the surreal world of Milhaud’s ‘The Ox on the Roof’. In Comic Song the bassoon, a yodelling clarinet and French horn are put through their paces – marked ‘too fast’ and getting even faster, this nautical movement finally breaks up in orchestral ribaldry. Gryspeerdt was a lifelong admirer of Delius’s music, and it is difficult to imagine a more perfectly crafted homage than Summer Song. The last piece of ‘doggerel’ could have been entitled ‘Mint Imperial’, the nickname for Walton’s Coronation March, but since the music contains remnants of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ in its oil its composer, tongue firmly in cheek, prefers the sound of three parts of a motor car.
Rhapsody in Blue
Piano: Russell Harrold
George Gershwin was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn and grew up in a small home with three siblings and one piano (which young George played with increasing skill). At fifteen he dropped out of school to work on Tin Pan Alley, where he and dozens of other pianists sold songs for music publishers. He also continued his musical studies, composed and dreamt of making it big. By his early twenties he had found some success with his own works on Broadway. In 1920, his first hit song, Swanee, sung by Al Jolson, netted him $10,000 in its first year alone. Then came success with shows in London. By the age of twenty-four, the poor kid from Brooklyn had made it about as big as he might have ever dreamed. But the truly amazing part of the story was just beginning.
In the Roaring 20s, jazz was earning respect on the street and on Broadway as a sophisticated popular music, but by and large it failed to impress traditional, classical musicians. The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, a fashionable, jazz-influenced band for which Gershwin had played piano and written some music, had some mild success bringing jazz into the concert hall, but the real breakthrough came with a concert which Whiteman billed as ‘An Experiment in Modern Music.’ Far from featuring fearsome little novelties by Copland or Stravinsky, it was an exercise in what we would now call crossover. Whiteman booked the prestigious Aeolian Hall and devised a programme that mostly featured boundary-crossing arrangements for the Whiteman Orchestra, including Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 1. To give the publicity a boost, he asked the even more high-profile George Gershwin to compose and perform in a new piece. Gershwin was not sure whether he could handle an extended concert work, but about a month before the event, in early January 1924, he had read in the New York Tribune that he was writing a ‘jazz concerto’ and so he thought he had better get on with it. Although the concert lost money, the centrepiece was a hit. After a couple of repeat performances, Whiteman recorded it, and made a fortune. Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s resident arranger, who had done the original jazz-band scoring went on to make the present larger-scale orchestration. All in all, it was a triumph for the American way of doing things and such was the effect on Gershwin’s confidence that a year later he agreed to compose a piano concerto for the New York Symphony Orchestra – even though he is supposed to have gone away afterwards to ask what a concerto was.
With Gershwin at the piano, Rhapsody in Blue captivated that inaugural audience. From its famous opening clarinet glissando, through its jazzy riffs and unforgettable big-tune to the ebullient finale, it became an instant hit, although it has divided musicians. Bernstein was a notorious unbeliever, saying that you could cut whole chunks out of it, or rearrange the sequence of music, without damaging the effect. A sense of direction is one of the Rhapsody’s lower-scoring achievements and the big key-change at the end may feel less like a long-awaited arrival than an impulsive leap sideways, but who, other than rival professionals, honestly cares? The melodies, the rhythmic flair and the way in which Gershwin has absorbed and translated into classical terms the ‘blue notes’ of the American jazz tradition, while at the same time showing that he knew his Ravel and Rachmaninov, more than compensate for most listeners. As for the much-maligned form, it contains a brilliant stroke: the big tune. Held back until more than halfway through and transformed out of a bouncy idea from earlier on, it makes itself the work’s structural as well as emotional core.
Serenade for Orchestra
(ii) Andante con moto
(iii) Allegro vivace
Born in Northampton in 1921, Malcolm Arnold is one of the towering figures of the 20th century, with a remarkable catalogue of works to his credit, including nine symphonies, seven ballets, two operas, one musical, over twenty concertos, two string quartets, and music for brass-band and wind-band. He also wrote 132 film scores, which rank among the finest works ever composed for the medium, including the Oscar-winning Bridge on the River Kwai, Inn of the Sixth Happiness, which won him the Ivor Novello Award in 1958, and Whistle Down the Wind. His most popular works have a global audience and his finest body of music, the nine symphonies, are available in numerous recordings, including complete cycles on the Chandos, Naxos and Decca labels.
Having started his musical career as a trumpeter in the LPO in 1941, Arnold was composing full-time soon after the war. He represented Britain at the Prague Spring Festival, where he became friends with Shostakovich, in 1958 and composed the Peterloo Overture for the TUC’s centenary in 1968. He was instrumental in the foundation of the NYO both as composer and fundraiser. He was made a CBE in 1970 and has been the recipient of countless academic and professional awards, such as the ISM’s Distinguished Musician Award ‘for a lifetime’s achievements as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century’. Despite all this, Arnold’s music has not been universally admired, most noticeably by the BBC which didn’t warm to his blunt speaking or alcoholism and continues to look down its collective nose at music which could be said to have a foot in both Radio 2 and Radio 3.
Arnold’s consummate craftsmanship and intimate knowledge of every orchestral section are nowhere better illustrated than in this masterly Serenade, which he described as being for small orchestra, even though it is of Beethovenian size. The Allegretto is framed by a lovely, cascading figure in the winds that introduces a zephyr of a theme high up in the violins and flute. In the middle section, some beautiful dissonances accumulate in repeated chords that are slightly reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Winds. An elegant tune from the clarinets introduces a subtly scored and expressive theme in the Andante. When this tune moves to the flute and oboe, we hear one of Arnold’s musical fingerprints — a sliding chromatic grace note that is the equivalent to a glissando on a stringed instrument and which can be heard in so many other pieces such as A Grand, Grand Overture. The Allegro vivace sets off at a terrific pace into a rapidly syncopated tune that recalls the Little Suites. There are some wild flourishes from the woodwinds and a jazz–inspired trumpet solo to admire before this wonderful, yet neglected little jewel of a piece finds its way home.
Mozart ( 1756–91 )
Symphony No 38 in D, Prague
(i) Adagio – Allegro
(iii) Allegro spiritoso
At the end of 1786, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro was enjoying such success in Prague that the impresario Pasquale Bondini invited the composer to a performance. This took place on 17 January the following year when Mozart was so impressed, especially by the orchestra, that he conducted a performance of the opera five days later. In between, he also premiered a new, three movement symphony which he had written only a month earlier especially for the visit. For some, the fact that it lacks a minuet is a throwback to the origins of the symphony in the ‘quick–slow–quick’ format of the Italian overture. Others conclude that Mozart says all he needs to say in three movements and that a fourth is, therefore, redundant. A third possibility links this ‘Prague’ symphony with his last three great works in the genre to make a foursome — a kind of symphony of symphonies.
Another factor is the massive slow introduction which, though it opens in D major, spans a huge range of keys before ending up on the threshold of D minor. This produces an unsettled first subject whose syncopations are in the treble and whose bass is unrooted until the tutti. After some antiphonal exchanges between the top and bottom of the orchestra which modulate to A major, the first subject is recalled on an extraordinary augmented chord. This time it is worked into a contrapuntal sequence that turns full circle back to A for a beautifully relaxed second subject in which the two bassoons have a prominent role. The development mostly involves the opening string idea counterpointed against the woodwinds’ first tutti idea in sequences which, because they often rise, tighten the dramatic tension. Eventually, a long pedal note ushers in the recapitulation, which Mozart, not for the first time, turns straight away towards the minor key with such ease that it looks a generation ahead to Schubert. Another dramatic ascent in the bass brings back the second subject in the home key and this time the oboes join in with the bassoons’ clever counterpoints. The movement ends after an unusual rescoring of the underlying idea of the first subject which sees the violins and violas three octaves apart.
The Andante is in a warm G major and 6/8 time. A lovely tune in sixths over a pedal note and with a chromatic cadence is the first theme. The second, also over a pedal, is in D major and has a famed similarity to the theme of Elgar’s Enigma Variations at whose first performance the Prague Symphony appeared on the same programme! In the middle section the first theme, doubled by the flute and bassoon two octaves apart, is soon heard in C major before moving into E minor and another impressive antiphonal sequence. The return of the opening section is effortlessly abbreviated, neatly amended to avoid changing key again, re-orchestrated with delightful new counterpoints and has clever little coda made from some of the opening material. Mozart’s earlier syncopations return at the outset of a Finale of tremendous pace. Two phrases – one lifted up to the supertonic, the other stepping back down to the tonic as so often occurs in Schubert – are answered by a short tutti, before an extended repeat by the woodwinds in the minor leads to the change of key. Although the second subject is introduced by the strings, it is the woodwinds who interject, extend it and bring back the first theme again in this sonata rondo movement. The development is short but hugely inventive being wholly concerned with throwing new light on the first subject, including putting its syncopations in the bass. The recapitulation arrives sooner than expected. Woodwinds again take a prominent role in the necessary adjustments that are required for the symphony to end in D major at its sunniest.