Inside Southbank Sinfonia

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


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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.

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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.

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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.


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“This concerto is like a wild animal”

Mathieu Foubert
Cello

On Thursday 12 May, Southbank Sinfonia cellist Mathieu Foubert tackles Shostakovich’s mighty Cello Concerto No.1 in a Free Rush Hour Concert. Watch his preview above and read his words below for an insight into one of the great instrumental challenges. 

This concerto is like a wild animal. It’s a like a great fish that’s difficult to catch, then just as you think you’ve got it, it slips through the net and you have to learn it again. And again, and again. You can’t have it in your fingers for a lifetime.

It’s a difficult piece to learn even today, when we know Shostakovich’s language. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Rostropovich – the cellist who first played it – because the language would have been so strange. I remember when I first looked at the part when I was teenager being afraid at the number of notes, and it took – and still takes – many hours of slow practice. It really does demands a lot of sweat and blood to get to know it.

That said, this piece is very special for me as it was the first really big concerto I played as a teenager. It’s a really fun piece because it’s been built for the cello and the cellist. It makes the cello sound great all the time. It also requires a lot of strength because for so much of the time it’s really loud and really fast, and you need to fight a big orchestra. You have to compete with their sound, so it’s incredibly demanding for the soloist.

It’s difficult to pick just one favourite moment from the piece because it’s a long, action-packed trip from the beginning to the end, and there are amazing parts in every movement. But it all builds to the last movement, ending up totally crazy with a fortissimo so huge that you almost break your cello!

Three words to describe this concerto?

Sarcastic, definitely. Mad… and fun.

Hear Mathieu and Southbank Sinfonia perform the concerto at 6.00pm, Thursday 12 May at St John’s Waterloo. Find out more about the concert here.

Find out more about Mathieu Foubert here.


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Solving the mystery of Telemann’s Concerto

ImogenHancock1

Imogen Hancock
Trumpet

Every piece of music has secrets. Some are small; the odd surprise as you play through for the first time. Others are much larger, requiring investigation, experimentation and some tough decisions.

Georg Philipp Telemann’s Concerto in Eb Major for Two Trumpets falls into the latter category.

In March, Southbank Sinfonia went back in time for an entirely Baroque programme played largely unconducted with authentic period bows and gut strings. The trumpet section (Etty Wake and I) were given the chance to perform Telemann’s lesser-known concerto, an interesting challenge for a number of reasons…

Horn or Trumpet?
Our first challenge? Working out which instruments to actually play the concerto on! There is a big question mark over what the concerto was intended for: in the original score Telemann writes ‘Tromba Selvatiche’ (‘forest trumpets’), but it is not clear exactly what these instruments are. Some speculate that they were actually more similar to the horn, but it is almost impossible that a horn player could have played the higher solo part at the written pitch. I recently heard a recording of this concerto on horns and both solo parts were, in fact, played an octave lower. It is also puzzling that Telemann would have written ‘Tromba’ instead of ‘Corni’ on the score if he had really intended for it to be played on horns.

Old or new?
Having concluded that the concerto is indeed supposed to be played on trumpets, the options available to us were either the Baroque (natural) trumpet or the piccolo trumpet.

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Performing in Southbank Sinfonia’s Free Rush Hour Concert at St John’s Waterloo

The natural trumpet is played much more commonly nowadays and is shaped like one long, curved pipe with holes in the tubing. A player can cover certain holes with their fingers to help with tuning, but the changes in pitch are mostly created by the tightness of the lips – where the really hard work happens. This can make playing certain repertoire extremely difficult on these instruments. In contrast, the piccolo trumpet is a smaller (octave higher) version of a modern trumpet. Playing this trumpet still requires a lot of tension at the lips, but a smaller mouthpiece and valves make it more manageable in the higher range.

Compared to the more piercing sound of the piccolo trumpet, the natural trumpet may have been more sympathetic to the tone of the gut strings. However, the incredibly high and virtuosic nature of the solo parts meant that we didn’t have much choice but to play on piccolo trumpets. To complicate matters further, although our string colleagues were using Baroque bows and strings, they were still playing at modern pitch (A=440). This in turn raised the pitch of the trumpet parts by a semitone which, although only sounding like a small step up, actually requires a huge increase in pressure. The piccolo trumpets really were the obvious choice.

‘To repeat or not to repeat? That is the question…’
The next challenge was deciding on the format of the concerto. Telemann wrote repeats into the second and fourth movements (the livelier movements of the concerto) and from this it is clear that he was not a trumpet player..! The level of stamina and endurance required by the trumpet soloists to play all of the repeats is immense, and it is for this reason that most recordings don’t include them all.

Baroque_ImogenHancock1

Rehearsing at St George’s Hanover Square, ahead of a London Handel Festival performance.

Nevertheless, our guest Leader Adrian Butterfield was very keen to follow Telemann’s original instructions. It took a lot of practice to develop the strength to play so high for so long, but the extra effort was certainly worth the reward. It was a truly euphoric feeling to successfully reach the end of each performance and the concerto also felt much more balanced with this structure. The acoustics at St George’s Hanover Square (the church that Handel used to attend) were wonderful and really helped the piccolo trumpet sound to blend with the strings and harpsichord.

The process of preparing for this concerto was quite unlike anything else I’ve done. Before even playing a note, Telemann presented us with mysteries which required a remarkable amount of thought and decision-making! Yet, having unlocked some of the secrets of this concerto, the performances felt all the more intense, confident and satisfying.

Find out more about Imogen Hancock  here.


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Southbank Sinfonia 2016 New Music Playlist

So we all know our composers from Vivaldi to Mozart, Beethoven to Wagner. But revolutionary symphonies and imaginative chamber works don’t just come from the past. As composers like Stravinsky and Webern extended the musical language in the 20th century, today’s composers are constantly bringing up fresh, exciting ideas to change the fabric of classical music. 

To give you a flavour of the cutting-edge ideas classical music is throwing at us today, we grabbed some of our musicians, asking them what their favourite contemporary pieces are to create the ultimate ‘Southbank Sinfonia 2016 New Music Playlist’.

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Caleb Sibley (Viola) – Steve Reich Violin Phase (1967)

“There’s something I find simply mesmerising about this piece; it’s an amazing combination of the hypnotic and absolutely engaging. When I listen to this piece time stands still. I can’t explain it… You’ll just have to listen to it for yourself!”

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Imogen Hancock (Trumpet) – Thomas Adès …but all shall be well (1993)

“…but all shall be well is an atmospheric work for orchestra, and conjures up mysterious moods like no other. The piece draws out a wonderful array of colours from every corner of the orchestra, and I find it mesmerising and terrifying in equal measure!”

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Mathieu Foubert (Cello) – Steve Reich Triple Quartet (1998)

“In the purest style of Reich, this piece is a model of precise clockwork music that transports the audience (and the players!) in an irresistible trance.”

AliceThompson.jpg

 

Alice Thompson (Flute) – Oliver Knussen Masks (1969)

“I really enjoy performing this piece because alongside just playing the notes, Knussen makes acting suggestions. It’s really fun to be imaginative not only with the way I play the notes and phrases, but also with my facial expressions and body movements.”

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Sarah Berger (Cello) – Joby Talbot String Quartet No. 2 (2002)

“I first heard this piece when watching a youth ballet dance production. The music’s dark, reflective ambience was a thrilling background to the visually striking choreography. The music was a perfect fit to the mesmerising dancing, and its fluidity and intensity affected me in a powerful way.”

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Nick Mooney (French horn) – John Adams Harmonielehre (1985)

Harmonielehre was the first contemporary piece of music I played in a big orchestra. The huge symphonic sound mixed with the modern compositional style was a big breath of fresh air. It was a very exciting and challenging experience and the piece remains one of my favourites.”

 

If you liked the music we’ve featured so far, take a look at what more of our players chose for our ‘Southbank Sinfonia 2016 New Music Playlist’ on Spotify below. From carnival percussion to cosmic orchestral colours, our players have embraced contemporary music from every angle.

  1. Steve Reich – Violin Phase (Caleb)
  2. Luciano Berio – Sinfonia (Section III) (Kalliopi)
  3. Isang Yun – Piri (Tinny)
  4. Joby Talbot – String Quartet No. 2 (Sarah)
  5. Oliver Knussen – Masks (Alice)
  6. Steve Reich – Triple Quartet (First Movement) (Mathieu)
  7. Michael Torke – Rapture (Drums and Woods) (Jack)
  8. Krzysztof Penderecki – Per Slava (Florence)
  9. Thomas Adès – …but all shall be well (Imogen)
  10. Luciano Berio – Sequenza VIII (Tania)
  11. Esa-Pekka Salonen – Helix (Eve)
  12. Ton de Leeuw – Sonatina (Essi)
  13. Pierre Henry – Psyche Rock (Zoé)
  14. John Adams – Harmonielehre (First Movement) (Nick)

 

One thing that’s for sure is that classical music today is bursting with colour and brimming with energy that keeps the classical spark alight. If you enjoyed some of the music featured in our playlist, then our next Free Rush Hour Concert is not to be missed, as we tackle John Adams’ caffeine-infused Chamber Symphony, motor away in Bryce Dessner’s fierce Aheym and pit two string armies in Osvaldo Golijov’s wild Last Round, conducted by Holly Mathieson. 

Find out more about our Free Rush Hour Concerts at St John’s Waterloo here.

Find out more about the musicians of Southbank Sinfonia here.


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What they’re really thinking: the truth about ‘Eroica’

EroicaBlog612px

Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ is lauded as the symphony that changed everything, a musical masterpiece so revolutionary that its influence is felt in everything we hear two centuries later. But is this just marketing rhetoric, a grandiose claim made by people whose job it is to entice audiences to a concert?

Well, we put our players in a room together and asked them what they really think of the symphony; what it’s like to perform, what it means to them, how it fits into musical life today. Here’s what they said, warts and all…

Let’s start at the beginning:

Tom Lee (Percussion): “‘Eroica’ has got the shortest introduction of any symphony ever. Two notes. Up until that point, symphonies had started with long, often pretty arduous introductions where you might hear a slow version of a theme that would appear later. But this was the symphony where Beethoven really broke away from the norm and developed his own style. So instead, you just get E FLAT MAJOR! E FLAT MAJOR! START THE PIECE!. It’s very direct, it makes you sit up and take notice; bang, bang and you’re there, right in the thick of it.”

Helena Gourd (Flute): “Straight away you can tell he just wants to break free from the traditions of the era before. He seems quite frustrated as though he just wants to yell “I’ve got something better to say!”

The beginning of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, here performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker.

TL: “The first movement is the really heroic part of the symphony because there’s a lot of stress and tension, then reconciliation at the end. That’s like the struggle for the hero of the story. The rhythm in the first movement, all the offbeats, is how he’s injecting tension, all the while pulling at the threads of Classical-era writing.”

Jack Maran Hewetson (Bass): “I really like the rhythm; it’s the most rhythmic symphony in the first movement. I think it’s amazing – it sounds very modern, not dated at all.”

Sarah Berger (Cello): “I also think it’s one of the most complicated cello parts I’ve played in a Beethoven symphony. It’s incredibly intricate and the cellos have a lot of melodies, which wasn’t typical for pieces written earlier. It’s a really active part.”

JMH: “It’s also very loud and that’s quite hard, playing so loud for so long. Yet, as much as I love it, ‘Eroica’ does feel like it’s overcomposed sometimes, like it’s overdone. It feels like he poured so much into it that sometimes it seems just very slightly over the top. I enjoy listening to all of it, but there are points where you feel Beethoven might be being a little too self-indulgent; just little moments where you think ‘was that really necessary?’ If you look at Beethoven’s Fifth, it’s not very long at all and the whole thing feels very taut – it’s really to the point, especially in the first movement. In comparison, sometimes ‘Eroica’ is just so expansive.”

TL: “Actually, Jack half-convinced me there because when you hear a piece where every note absolutely matters, you really feel that. But still, in the first three movements of ‘Eroica’ I can’t think of a note that doesn’t matter. But if you were to talk about which of the movements was the most self-indulgent, would it be the first one because of its length? Yet I feel like the first movement really has to take that lengthy journey to cover all the emotional intent, and to reach its climax and really feel it.”

Ioana Forna (violin): “He’s put all his faith in it and you can really hear that, which might be why it sometimes feels laboured or over-composed. He really believed in something and really wanted that to come across. I think when you play it you desperately want to know what was happening in his head, but of course we don’t really have a clue – we just have to make educated guesses. But to see someone putting all his faith in this belief [of democratic French revolutionary ideals] is really incredible.”

TL: “I think it’s important to be informed about history, and Napoleon in this context, but the thing about Beethoven is that he’s timeless and that it does actually speak to you regardless. ‘Eroica’ is so directly engaging and energised; I heard this piece before knowing the context of it and I think that it can equally be about getting up out of bed in the morning as much as a French revolutionary who goes bad. It’s personal; you draw on your own experiences. To play or hear that second, funereal movement, that’s going to play to your own inner sense – whatever that may be.”

And who exactly is the hero in ‘Eroica’? Is it the young Napoleon, initially so full of liberating ideals?

TL: “It could also be interpreted as quite autobiographical – Beethoven could see himself as the artistic hero, especially in the first movement, as he goes through all this stress. He sees himself as this Übermensch.”

Tinny Cheung (Oboe): “Yet the idea of the symphony, regardless of its dedication, is about democracy and freedom for the people, so for me personally there isn’t a particular person but an ideology that’s heroic.”

Bartosz Kwasecki (Bassoon): “I think the hero is really the audience. The music is written for someone and without the audience, without anyone to listen to it, what’s the point in it?”

Imogen Hancock (Trumpet): “But without the composer there wouldn’t be any music…”

Ralitsa Naydenova (Viola): “…and Beethoven turns music in a completely different way, including for the musicians themselves. He was a very challenging composer for the musicians. At the time people were not so advanced as musicians, technically, and he expands the boundaries by writing very high notes or writing very unusual techniques for string players.”

Great, well that’s that all cleared up then! One thing’s for sure though, this symphony remains contentious and inspiring in equal measure. If you add the boundless energy of conductor Rebecca Miller – described by The Times as “a miracle of perpetual motion” – into the mix, our next Free Rush Hour Concert promises to be a fiery affair.

Find out more about our Free Rush Hour Concerts at St John’s Waterloo here.

Find out more about the musicians of Southbank Sinfonia here.