Inside Southbank Sinfonia

An orchestra like no other, based in the heart of London


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Throwback Fourteen

Maxime Tortelier
Conductor

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The minute I was asked by Southbank Sinfonia to conduct Shostakovich 14 felt like a throwback moment. The name and number (few composers have written that many symphonies, and this particular one is a rare treat in concert programmes) brought me back to a very special week in October 2013 when I was assisting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and their Principal Conductor Kirill Karabits, who were rehearsing that same piece. One rather untypical task I ended up doing that week was to look after the surtitles (the symphony has two solo voices singing in Russian) for what was to be a breathtaking performance. Funnily enough, that particular task, back then, was itself a throwback to the only other time I had ever worked on surtitles before, some ten years earlier, with the great French director Patrice Chéreau who was staging Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground – and just to make matters more coincidental, Patrice Chéreau passed away that very same week. Reading the warm tributes pouring in across the news and social media, I was at once transported to that special occasion when I came to know him personally, and hurled back to the very subject matter of Shostakovich’s fourteenth symphony: death, as seen, portrayed and illustrated by the eleven poems (by four different poets) for which the symphony provides a musical incarnation.

shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich on stage with soprano Margarita Miroshnikova, bass Yevgeni Vladimirov, and conductor Rudolf Barshai after a performance of his Fourteenth Symphony, October 1969.

Morbid as it may seem to base an entire symphony on the idea of death, Shostakovich’s eclectic selection makes for an astonishing variety of tone, atmosphere and imagery, as I quickly rediscovered after pulling the score back off the shelf. It wasn’t long before I took out some books too, and read more poems by Apollinaire, Garcia Lorca and Rilke, albeit in their French versions (my Spanish is limited and my German needs brushing up!). Resisting my usual urge to go straight to the music itself, I put the score aside for a while and took in the words alone – their associations and assonances, their rhythms and rhymes, their magic and meaning.

poets

The four poets who wrote the words used in the Fourteenth. From left to right: Federico Garcia Lorca; Guillaume Apollinaire; Wilhelm Kuchelbecker; and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Then on to the music: my score, a messy mix of four different languages, swelled with markings as I looked to understand the shape and structure of each individual movement, as well as the overall ordering and progression of the poems: yes, this really is a symphony, not just a compilation or song cycle. Not only do almost all the movements segue into one another, blurring the lines between one poem (and poet) and the next; the strings and percussion (no wind instruments in this orchestra), a far cry from the more polite orchestral accompaniments, are also true symphonic protagonists, a dramatic counterpart to the solo voices, soprano and bass. In fact, the fairy-tale narrative of Apollinaire’s “Loreley”, arguably the centrepiece of the symphony, even feels like a miniature opera, complete with recitatives, interludes, and its own climax. From Loreley’s locks to the fierce and fiery duende of Garcia Lorca’s “Malagueña”, from the lulling lament sung to “Delvig, Delvig” to the suicidal soundings of a locked-up Apollinaire , the grim reaper glides along Shostakovich’s symphony taking on many a surprising guise, before storming out and leaving us in shock silence at the end of Rilke’s “Schlussstück”.

A memorable ride, not for the faint-hearted… I’m just about ready for another throwback moment, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I know I will!

Maxime makes his Southbank Sinfonia debut conducting Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony alongside Boulez’s Mémoriale in our Free Rush Hour Concert, 6.00pm, Thursday 29 September at St John’s Waterloo. The concert will be recorded by BBC Radio 3, to be broadcast at a later date. For more information, click here.

Find out more about Maxime Tortelier here.


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Shakespeare in Music: Rosabel Watson, the Suffragist pioneer

Richard Sandland
Music Operations Manager, Royal Shakespeare Company

Alongside getting new RSC productions on-stage, Richard has spent years delving into the company’s remarkable archive and rediscovering scores from plays over the past century. Now, Southbank Sinfonia will bring a selection back to life in a special concert.

I have to admit to becoming really keen on a name from the early years of the RSC: Rosabel Watson – who worked in Stratford on and off between c. 1916 and c. 1944 as a Music Director.

Earlier, she is mentioned in The Common Cause, a Suffragist newspaper, in 1910 where, at a reception for the President and Council of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies given by Lady Frances Balfour, “….Miss Rosabel Watson’s orchestra will give a programme of music. Miss Watson’s band is composed largely, if not entirely, of ardent suffragists who are also excellent artistes…” The Aeolian Ladies Orchestra was the first all-female Orchestra in the UK.

She was a double bass player, a viola player and also was described as the “best woman horn-player in England”; evidently she was an excellent all-round musician. That’s her in the middle of the picture below, with the conductor’s baton.

Rosabel-Watson---Aeolian-Ladies'-Orchestra

Rosabel was well established in the profession when in the programme for The Winter’s Tale (2 August 1916), it states that she arranged the music for entr’actes. It seems that her orchestra played pre-show too, although, it being 1916, records are scant.

Nine years later, the programme for King John (1925) includes the note “The Orchestra under the direction of Miss Rosabel Watson.” There is no composer noted anywhere on the score or parts. Did she write the music too? I suspect it was almost certainly her, or possibly Albert Cazabon, but the manuscript is certainly in her hand. Even the archive’s original production records neglect to mention who the composer was. Nice record-keeping, folks!

Rosabel Watson - King John score

Much of her original music is now in the papers of Chris Castor at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin; there are others in the Donald Wolfit Papers – perhaps an answer to her story lies somewhere in that archive. A short biographical note in the Texas papers says she was “A bright little lady with bright piercing eyes. She proved to be a loyal and sympathetic friend. She had served for twelve years at Stratford on Avon and worked for many years at the Open Air Regent’s Park under Robert Atkins.”

Rosabel Watson - As You Like It

Rosabel was here again in 1944, when she worked on As You Like It. Arthur Dulay wrote the music, but Rosabel arranged the songs, from Thomas Arne. She died in 1959, a fleeting shadowy figure, a pioneer in a man’s world. It will be fun to put flesh on the bare bones, and there will be more news if I find it, of the bright little lady.

Southbank Sinfonia performs Rosabel Watson’s King John alongside concert premieres of other Shakespearean scores on Tuesday 20 September at St John’s Smith Square, London. Joining the orchestra are a cast of actors, including Olivier Award-winner Patricia Hodge and BAFTA-nominated David Threlfall, to set the scene with Shakespeare’s evocative prose. The concert is presented in collaboration with the RSC.

Find out more here.

Follow Richard on Twitter here.


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Shakespeare in Music: Vaughan Williams’ lost music

Richard Sandland
Music Operations Manager, Royal Shakespeare Company

Alongside getting new RSC productions on-stage, Richard has spent years delving into the company’s remarkable archive and rediscovering scores from plays over the past century. Now, Southbank Sinfonia will bring a selection back to life in a special concert.

It’s nice to report that the RSC had, a hundred years ago, one of the undisputed masters of what is now known as the second English musical renaissance working here. Sir Frank Benson’s productions of 1913-14 featured Ralph Vaughan Williams as arranger, composer and conductor. The picture below shows him at pretty much this time. He was the first classical composer that I, as a callow youth, became really interested in; I was a tuba player and he wrote a Tuba Concerto – yes, I know! Why?

RVW portrait

Vaughan Williams was a local man to the RSC, being born in Down Ampney, near Cirencester, only about 40 miles or so from Stratford-upon-Avon. He was descended on his mother’s side from Josiah Wedgwood; Charles Darwin was a great uncle, and so his genes contained potential for that combination of inquiry and art that marks out a formidable creative mind.

RVW-Richard-II-1913---Score

Images used by permission of The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

A page from RVW’s score for us for Richard II from 1913. I love that we know exactly where this was used in the show – it’s “to bring Richard on”, but, more precisely, it’s “when Mowbray sits” – RVW would have been watching the stage and cueing the orchestra.  Also, the trumpet part says “play when no Horns” – did RVW know who was turning up each night to play?

In 1905 he had arranged and conducted music for the Stratford Revels where, according to his biographer, “Ben Jonson’s Masque Pan’s Anniversary was performed in the Bancroft gardens”, this being the first performance of that piece since 1625. What I would do to find THAT music! His technique was then refined by having lessons with Ravel in 1908, and by 1913, when he received an invitation to meet with Sir Frank Benson, he had written his first mature works: A Sea Symphony, to words by Walt Whitman, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and was engaged in writing his London Symphony. He had also, in 1906, edited the English Hymnal.

So it was with a mixture of the ancient and the new with which Vaughan Williams arrived in Stratford for the 1913 Festival, which ran from 21 April to 14 May. Sir Frank – who I get the impression was formidable – “was obviously neither pleased not interested by the new music”. It wasn’t particularly new, though, being a mixture of folk-tunes and plainchant, with hymn tunes occasionally too, but apparently Sir Frank reverted to his “usual” music as soon as RVW departed, the Benson Company being “passionately wedded to their conventional incidental music”. I think they generally did revivals, so the 1913 Richard II would have been much the same as that from 1896, with 11 revivals in between.

Sir Frank Benson

Sir Frank Benson standing outside the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre

According to Benson’s biographer, J.C. Trewin, “The orchestra pit was very deep in the Memorial Theatre in Stratford such that if Vaughan Williams was high enough to see the stage, he could not see the orchestra. Conversely, if he could see the orchestra, he could not see the stage.” Much scope for comedy moments there!  Also of concern was “Benson’s utter disregard for music – except as something that had to be there” – this was an irritation, according to Ursula Vaughan Williams, but Ralph was delighted by the friendliness of the company and the glamour that went with it, and was deeply interested in all facets of the Production, even singing a plainchant psalm himself when the offstage singers were in the wrong place.

RVW - Shakespeare Memorial Theatre

The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre showing the orchestra pit where RVW would have worked.

Later in life, he wrote a full-scale opera on The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he called Sir John in Love, and he wrote music for radio productions of Shakespeare. But Vaughan Williams never came back to Stratford and his music for Richard II hasn’t been performed in public since.

Southbank Sinfonia performs Vaughan Wiliams’ Richard II alongside concert premieres of other Shakespearean scores on Tuesday 20 September at St John’s Smith Square, London. Joining the orchestra are a cast of actors, including Olivier Award-winner Patricia Hodge and BAFTA-nominated David Threlfall, to set the scene with Shakespeare’s evocative prose. The concert is presented in collaboration with the RSC.

Find out more here.

Follow Richard on Twitter here.


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The melodies of Rossini

JordiJuan-Perez1Jordi Juan-Perez
Clarinet

The melodies of Rossini are really very special. Throughout his music, he takes them and manipulates them in amazing ways. In each of Rossini’s operas – perhaps especially in The Barber of Seville – one of his great talents as a composer was to match melody to instrument, using the strengths of both halves to create an incredible whole. He also had an uncanny ability to share melodies between instruments, bouncing them around an orchestra like it was the most natural thing, all the while teasing out huge changes in phrasing.

In his Introduction, Theme and Variations, I’ll be playing an operatic introduction – one that sings – followed by a theme and five variations. For me, the piece has a little bit of everything. The first theme is very funny and light, yet a variation of it, in a minor key, is intimate and incredibly beautiful. The phrasing too is so varied. The main theme is short and highly articulated, but he twists it into a very legato (smooth) section, or a long, song-like section, or the lively, acrobatic finale.

One of the clarinet’s greatest strengths is its flexibility. It can be very soft or raucously loud (or anything in between), all played with a huge variety of colour. Rossini understood extremely well what it offered to music, and how best to extract it. He could take a melody and really exploit the flexibility of the clarinet to add something extra to it. The last variation in this piece, for example, is truly extraordinary.

I haven’t yet had the chance to play Introduction, Theme and Variations with an orchestra and I’m so excited to do so. In previous concerts I’ve played with a pianist, but with an orchestra you have so many extra inflections from all the other instruments and huge variations in volume. To play with an orchestra, you have to expand everything you have done previously and think again about just what kind of colours Rossini is asking for.

Jordi performs Rossini’s Introduction, Theme and Variations in our Free Rush Hour Concert, 6.00pm, Thursday 14 July at St John’s Waterloo, and at the Anghiari Festival.

Find out more about Jordi Juan-Perez here.


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Painting Stravinsky

AliceThompsonAlice Thompson
Flute

As part of the Philharmonia’s Myths & Rituals festival, Southbank Sinfonia will perform three pieces by Stravinsky, including Jeu de cartes, his ballet wittily dealt in three hands. As one of the flute players in the orchestra this year, this is a concert I’ve been particularly looking forward to. Stravinsky’s flute parts are always a welcome challenge, fully exploring our range (from low to high), our tone colours (from dark to hollow) and our ability to characterise different musical phrases. I love the way that Stravinsky’s music has so many facets, not least the big lush melodies contrasted with highly rhythmical sections. My very first encounter with Stravinsky’s music was hearing one such lush melody: the unison finale of The Firebird.

However, I did not hear this in the most conventional of ways…

It was in 1998, aged seven, that I first went to see YES live at both Newcastle City Hall and Sheffield City Hall. My parents were big fans of the progressive rock band long before my sister or I were born, so we grew up listening to their songs. I wanted to be like Rick Wakeman, their lead keyboard player. It was one of the band’s traditions that they came on stage to The Firebird Suite, and that was my first introduction to Stravinsky.

My next Stravinsky encounter happened around the age of 12 on my first trip to Salts Mill in Saltaire (West Yorkshire). There I saw an exhibition of opera and ballet set designs by David Hockney, including Mozart’s Magic Flute, Puccini’s Turandot, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and four inspired by Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Le Sacre du Printemps, Le Rossignol and Oedipus Rex. This was the first time I thought about how music can evoke a visual response, and it inspired me to go home and produce a set design for Stravinsky’s Firebird.

AliceThompson_StravinskySet

A set design for The Firebird, created when I was 12

It wasn’t until 2006, three years later, that I performed some Stravinsky for the first time. As part of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, we performed Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds at the Barbican and I remember in the first rehearsal sitting there, wondering how to count a piece that looked so rhythmically complex… then inevitably getting lost as the time signatures leapt around.

But throughout the years, music and painting in combination has been a topic I’ve thought about a lot. In fact, the subject for my Master’s research while in The Hague, The Netherlands was titled The Painting Musician. In it, I tried to answer three main questions:

  1. Will the musician find that the act of painting their piece makes them more imaginative and clearer in the message they want to portray when performing to the audience?
  2. Is it important whether or not the musician paints their piece in an abstract style or a representational/figurative style?
  3. What is the importance of colour and form to the musician?

While I was researching, I happened to be practising a flute orchestral excerpt from Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes and so I painted Act 2 Variation 4 in both a figurative style and in an abstract style, thinking about the colours and forms I wanted to use.

AliceThompson_StravinskyPaintings

Paintings of Jeu de cartes in a figurative style (left) and an abstract style (right)

The figurative painting depicts the main character of the ballet, the Joker. There’s an element of conflict, which represents the constant alternation between neighbouring notes, often juxtaposed an octave apart. The spears are prodding the Joker, mimicking the staccato in the excerpt, while the vibrant and saturated colours indicate the loud dynamic marking of the variation.

The abstract painting concentrates on the shape and the nuances of the solo flute line. The colour filled triangles show accents, while the zig-zags represent the frequent note leaps in the solo. Musical symbols are also present, much in the style of Paul Klee.

I found that painting the music helped me focus on its message rather than its technical difficulties, providing a different frame through which to think about it. It’ll certainly be in my mind when we’re rehearsing Jeu de cartes this month. Perhaps, one day, my journey will travel full circle and I’ll have the opportunity to play – and maybe even paint – the finale from The Firebird.

Hear Southbank Sinfonia perform a selection of Stravinsky works in our Free Rush Hour Concert, 6.00pm, Thursday 30 June at St John’s Waterloo. Find out more about the concert here.

Find out more about Alice Thompson here.


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Life through the lens: An orchestra in Paris

KanaKawashimaKana Kawashima
Violin

After sold-out debut concerts in 2014, Southbank Sinfonia returned to the iconic Notre-Dame de Paris in May 2016 for a performance alongside the UK Parliament Choir. From the very heart of the orchestra, Kana picks her favourite tour shots in her photo blog.

Find out more about Kana Kawashima here.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, a venue that carries sound in a way incomparable to any other I’ve played in:

 

The views from a chair right in the middle of the orchestra:

 

French snapshots and inspirations:

 

Because after all, we’re just a group of musicians enjoying our time in Paris:

All photographs ©Kana Kawashima 2016.


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How to memorise a concerto

SujinParkSujin Park
Violin

I can’t remember exactly how young I was, but a long time ago I watched a video of Hilary Hahn playing the Brahms Violin Concerto and it just blew me away. After seeing that, I knew it was something I wanted to try myself. I find a real thrill in performing things that are technically demanding, and this concerto is known to be a tough challenge. But more than that, I love the piece: the melodies really touch me, and the whole thing is just so fiery and intensely passionate. I’ve always wanted to play it and now I’m just so excited to finally be able to with Southbank Sinfonia.

Divide and conquer
When you first start tackling any solo piece, it’s a case of breaking it down. I play and memorise very little sections, then bolt more and more together to make the memorised sections larger and larger. When it’s long enough, I’ll practise playing through that segment to get it feeling really secure before moving on and repeating the same process. Play it through, add new bits on, play it through.

I’m currently doing this for the third movement of the concerto. So, taking today as an example, I took a certain few bars, worked through them slowly, gradually built them up, then added a few more. This process is repeated over and over, bar by bar, and although it’s time consuming, that’s just what it takes to really get to know a piece.

That crazy person on the bus…
Getting to grips with a concerto inevitably takes hours and hours of playing in a practise room, but there are other ways – and places – to rehearse too. Mental practise is something that I find really works for me and I spend my time travelling on London’s buses to go over the music in my head. I picture myself playing and, for example, if there’s a big shift I would visualise having my violin in hand and the positioning of my fingers as they reach for notes. I go through this same thinking when I’m playing the actual instrument, ‘this is how far I shift, this is how far it feels to reach that note for it to be in tune’, so my mental practise is just a lifelike visualisation of what’s required.

Watch (and listen) and learn
YouTube and recordings are big inspirations when preparing a concerto. I get ideas listening to different players, picking and choosing what appeals the most, and then bring everything together to contribute to my own interpretation. When I’m performing with an orchestra or a piano, I also listen to recordings to know how the whole piece fits together. That way when I’m actually performing it nothing comes as a surprise.

Recordings are particularly rich sources of inspiration for really fine details and subtleties, but there’s a point at which I stop listening to them in the lead up to a concert to focus on my own performance. Little things like hearing another musician’s bow changes can be dangerous, something that can be off-putting if they differ from a particular bowing I’ve been practiscing and know I’ll be using. Clarity of thought in my own performance is important in the build-up to the concert.

More than just notes
Of course, there’s more to a performance than just playing several thousand notes – there’s also a lot of physicality to think about. My last professor taught me a great deal about being a performer; it’s not enough to know what you want inside your head, you also have to be able to convey that to the audience. You need to give visual clues, using body language to guide them through the music with you, and there are moments throughout the concerto where I’ll want to move a little bit more to physically convey something extra. The only thing I can’t control are my facial expressions!

Hear Sujin and Southbank Sinfonia perform the concerto at 6.00pm, Thursday 19 May at St John’s Waterloo. Find out more about the concert here.

Find out more about Sujin Park here.

In the meantime, watch Sujin’s inspiration, Hilary Hahn, perform the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra in the video below.