Monday, 2 May 2011

Famous Orchestra in Fleapit

The bulb has gone out in the projector. The technician says it might take a few days to replace, which is disappointing. I have become dependent on the illuminated white board, with every lesson planned out on sequences of screens, and to revert to the old-fashioned felt pens on a board which is no longer the focus of attention in the classroom will not be conducive to civilised behaviour among the expectant toughs who visit me for lessons. Technology is beautiful as long as you have power. Electricity made music hugely exciting in the twentieth century, but also very dependent. The saddest sight in all music is the rock band during a power cut. I once saw it happen. 'Doh! I was just getting into that!' said the bassist as he twanged his lifeless strings.
Berlin Phil Goes Local

I attend a preview of the film Berliner Philharmoniker – A Musical Journey in 3D at a London hotel. Cinemas throughout the UK are to screen it during May. At the reception, I swallow an alcoholic cocktail from Singapore, a marketing incentive from the film’s location. I put on magic spectacles and see Sir Simon Rattle conduct without a score a programme of Mahler One and Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances at the Esplanade Concert Hall. The performance is not the greatest this formidable orchestra has ever given – it lacks a certain tension – but one appreciates the precision in the ensemble, the tidy balance and the virtuoso tone from the leading players.

There is little sense that Rattle awes the players. The relationship is cordial, like a captain to his crew but not a general or a field-marshal. He brings out the sadness in the Mahler, but there is no breezy spring in the step of the youth crossing the fields in the textless song Ging heut morgen uebers Feld. He achieves an impressive wave of gathering power through the relentless grind of the third movement Frere-Jacques-in-the-minor but the finale seems to drift and one becomes aware of the editor’s obsessions as he focuses on this or that player - the unshaven second violinist, the flautist’s sideburns, the female horn player’s noble profile – all rendered ghostly in three dimensions through the only slightly irritating plastic goggles. 

The less profound Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances seem to suit conductor and orchestra better. The first movement bounces pneumatically down its three step theme. The camera, bored now with the concert hall, goes in search of Singaporeans outside and matching Rattle’s rhythm, captures a classical dance troupe cavorting joyfully with angular allegro gestures and a tai chi class in the slow movement. Moslems at prayer and Hindus in the temple make reference to the modern cliché of art (in this case classical music) as the new religion in the West while scenes of the busy docks and sleek new skyscrapers proclaim the wealth of this cocktail capital.

The film aims to cash in on the current vogue for experiencing opera in the cinema and is certainly a novel way of attending a standard repertoire classical concert. Rattle is impressive even if he doesn’t quite link with the players as deeply as he might and has done on different occasions in other venues. The sponsor’s presence is a little too obvious. The film, of course, enables the venues to be almost infinitely varied. They go from Aberdeen to York and open on 9 May. Full details on

London String Quartet Festival
At the reception I meet the former Ambassador of Singapore and tell him about the above film. ‘In the new hall?’ he asks, ‘stunning. They can afford it.’ He says he loved the island republic, but sometimes found the passion for wealth tiresome. Musicians, of course, worry too little about wealth. The former ambassador’s son-in-law is a composer, which is the last career the ambitious money-maker considers. Musicians are reliant on hand-outs. The biennial London String Quartet Festival at Trinity College of Music at Greenwich is lucky to have received a generous grant from the Arts Council. Those present at the opening concert last Friday would have understood completely their support.

The Carducci Quartet play Haydn’s Joke Quartet, Mendelssohn’s F minor Quartet (his swansong) and Schubert’s Quintet in C (his too) in the Royal Naval College Chapel. The light, lustrous acoustic loves their strings. First violin Matthew Denton doubles the bounce with each repeat in the first movement, his right leg springing from the ground with joyful, ‘and again’ impetus. Perhaps a little more cello might give the finale a greater sense of the delirious dance, but the way in which the players flourish their bows at each of the false endings and fool the majority of the audience wins genuine laughter .

Denton controls Mendelssohn‘s last quartet like a magician, setting a feverish first movement temperature, grading the thrilling accelerando like a jockey picking his moment for the charge. In Schubert’s Quintet after the interval, cellist Mrs Denton gains an ally in Vanessa Lucas-Smith and together they oppose the fiddles, the viola acting as referee. In a serene, almost bitter adagio, second cello looses pizzicato darts at first violin who swishes them back with slow legato strokes. The grinding drones in the third movement throb with coarse, peasanty appeal and the pianissimo achieved in the trio whispers of heaven. The Carducci Quartet, visiting artists-in-residence at Trinity College of Music, is a strongly led, witty, highly professional ensemble with engagements all over the world. The competitive tensions which must exist in a foursome comprising two married couples are barely apparent. The London String Quartet Festival should book them for 2013 immediately.