Inside Southbank Sinfonia

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


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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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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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Oboe Warfare: In Conversation with Julia Hantschel

With a Rush Hour concerto performance on the horizon, oboist Julia Hantschel unlocks the door to the work of Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů.

THE ART OF COMMUNICATION

Describe the Martinů Oboe Concerto in a nutshell.

The way the piece is orchestrated means it’s about communication, with the oboe trying to interact with other instruments in the orchestra. The soloist is trying to express and share the emotions that are happening in that moment, and in a concerto with such strong emotions the conversations are quite easy to understand.

The first movement is very free flowing with a sense of peace, and hints of dancing rhythms, but then the second is so dark, depressing and devastating. A resolution follows, and the final movement has a sense of incredible freedom.

But it’s not just as simple as ‘the oboe’ and ‘the orchestra’ in this piece. There’s so much going on everywhere, we’re all taking cues off each other – be it the horns, trumpets or piano – and everyone is involved in this huge conversation that envelopes the whole band.

PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE

What goes through your mind while performing the concerto?

Emotion is everything. As an example, the second movement is like psychological warfare as you fight to break free but can’t. You are resigned to failure, to being trapped, and it’s deep emotions like these that I try to focus on. That process of resignation, and ultimately acceptance, is something I can relate to from my life – I think everyone probably can – and it’s a case of trying to channel that emotion into the performance.

But the piece, in part thanks to its instrumentation, is so colourful and I love that. The first and last movements are so different to the second, and there’s a huge emotional range to explore in the performance. Since I first discovered the piece several years ago, I’ve been playing it again and again.

Martinů composing at his piano in New York (c.1942)

20th CENTURY EDGE

How does the Martinů compare to other pieces or composers? 

To me, this concerto is a bit jazzy. It doesn’t go as far as Gershwin, but it’s a nod in that direction and definitely has an edge to it. This isn’t a classical or romantic concerto, it’s very much a 20th century piece with hints of Stravinsky and Shostakovich too.

This mixture of influences is hardly surprising given that Martinů’s life personified the upheaval of the 20th century. He was born in Czechoslovakia, but at various times lived in France, Spain, Portugal, the US and Switzerland. Initially this nomadic existence was for artistic reward, but later became a necessity and then by-product of a continent divided by the Second World War and the Iron Curtain.

Do you think your own international background, having lived and studied in Germany, New Zealand, Finland, Switzerland and the UK, helps in performing a piece like this?

I think so, yes. In general it helps to broaden your mind and shows you different points of view, but it’s also an important experience to go through as you move to another culture. Everything in your life that you thought was stable changes and you have to adjust to your new surroundings.

Then, from a musician’s perspective, there are interesting differences between orchestras in different countries. But with Southbank being such an international orchestra, the atmosphere feels so open. You don’t have to find a way of playing to match the existing style – like is the tradition in some continental European orchestras for instance – but instead the orchestra as a whole finds its own balance.

Southbank Sinfonia prepare for the Oxford Half Marathon

Julia and part of the Half Marathon team

MUSICIAN ON THE RUN

How do you escape from the stresses of being a professional musician?

I run! It’s so important for me to get my balance back, psychologically as well as physically. Sitting in an orchestra for six hours a day means you need something to release the energy, release the pressure, forget and relax. I’m not thinking about performances while I run, I’m just getting away from it all.

But the Martinů is quite heavy, because it’s a solo piece rather than an orchestral piece, so I’m making an extra effort at the moment to get fit for that. It’s important to build up some lung capacity and muscle for the performance, but there’s the useful side-effect of it helping my training for the half marathon a team from Southbank Sinfonia are competing in.

Alongside helping to raise funds for our inspirational music education projects, I’m really looking forward to running with my friends from the orchestra. As performers you’re usually in such a competitive environment with a constant pressure to excel at your instrument, so it’s fun to have the half marathon as a joint goal to support each other through.

Find out more about Southbank Sinfonia’s team running the Oxford half marathon here.

Julia is performing as soloist in Martinů’s Oboe Concerto with Southbank Sinfonia at St John’s Waterloo on Thursday 18 September. Join us for free at 6.00pm, enjoy a complimentary glass of wine and escape the rush hour! Find out more here.

Find out more about Julia here, or listen to the piece in the video below.


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5 minutes with…

Clara Pérez SedanoClaraPerezSedano_1000w
Oboe

THE OBOE
The oboe gets lots of solo opportunities within the orchestra, but it’s rarer for it be showcased as a concerto instrument. It’s an instrument where technique has evolved so much in recent years, and the quality of the instruments themselves improved, that oboe players today sound a lot better than they did a century ago – so there isn’t a huge repertoire for the instrument.

Nowadays we can do a lot more with the oboe and its ‘new’ sound. I much prefer the sound of oboe players now compared those at the beginning of the twentieth century – it’s changed a lot!

MY CONCERTO
I really like the Vaughan Williams concerto and it’s a piece I have a strong historical link to. I used to go to the high school that my father taught at, and I remember one day he played the concerto in the car home and I thought “ah, this is great!; what’s this?”. He told me it was the Vaughan Williams Oboe Concerto; I then started asking him to play it every day.

Then when I moved to London and met my teacher the Royal Academy, it turned out that this concerto was one of her favourites and that she had recorded it with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. This piece seems to follow me through life.

KEEP YOUR EARS OPEN FOR….
The first movement in particular is nice, with lovely harmonies, but probably my favourite part is in the third movement. Just before the final presto there’s a slow bit where the oboe plays in unison with some of the strings and the harmony is really beautiful. My mum is going to cry when she listens to that!

PREPARING FOR THE BIG DAY
You prepare differently according to the concerto. Different types of music require different approaches; it’s not only learning the notes, but you have to get to know the piece. Sometimes this means practising it, but it’s also important to listen to and compare recordings and look at the score to understand what the rest of the orchestra is doing. You have to understand the piece and the composer – then you can mean what you’re playing.

IT’S ALL IN THE REEDOboe Reeds
The reed is so important for the oboe. It’s really important that you can make good reeds because when you don’t have a good one it can transform the experience from enjoying yourself to and doing a beautiful thing to being in pain and hating every second.

To make a good reed takes a week or two, allowing the materials time to rest to make sure it will last when being played. If you’re in a rush you can make a few in a day, but I don’t know how many of them would work.

I’m putting good reeds aside at the moment so I have a good choice for performing the concerto, but weather conditions also have a big effect. It could be that today I have one that is working perfectly fine but tomorrow it won’t be working well enough, so it’s important to have a few choices to accommodate the delicate characters of the reeds!

Clara is performing as soloist in Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto with Southbank Sinfonia at St John’s Waterloo on Thursday 13 March. Join us for free at 6.00pm, enjoy a complimentary glass of wine and escape the rush hour! Find out more here.

Find out more about Clara here.