Musical reinventions: Jasdeep Singh Degun
Jasdeep Singh Degun is bringing a new energy to Indian music. He ‘audaciously mixes styles from the subcontinent’ (Financial Times), merging and modernising traditional sounds, and coming away with works that are a true celebration of a whole range of genres.
Now, in partnership with Milap and The Tung Auditorium, we’re bringing his exquisite compositions back to Liverpool audiences. On 9 June he’ll take to the Tung Auditorium’s stage, showcasing his debut album, Anomaly. From sitar solos to cinematic journeying alongside a nine-piece ensemble, it’s music rooted in ancient repertoire, delivered with contemporary flair, and guaranteed to dazzle purists and newcomers alike.
Ahead of his show here in the city, Jasdeep spoke about his love and affinity not only for Milap, but for Liverpool Philharmonic too…
"My history with Milapfest dates right back to before the beginning! I first got involved before I had started playing sitar, so I must have been about 13 or 14. Then I joined Samyo, Milap’s National Youth Orchestra for Indian Music, and through to my early 20s I was involved in all the annual summer schools in Dartington, in the Lake District and in Liverpool itself. I went on to join the senior ensemble, Tarang.
When I was still in the process of creating my album, Anomaly, Milap worked with me on a concert in the Purcell Room in London’s Southbank Centre. It was the first time we’d brought the whole ensemble together. Anoushka Shankar, Sukanya Shankar and Nitin Sawhney were in the audience, and it sold out. It was a really important milestone on the way to realising the album, and Milap’s involvement was an acknowledgement of the support that they’ve given me throughout my career.”
On Liverpool Philharmonic:
"I’ve got a long history with Liverpool, and with Liverpool Philharmonic in particular, having performed there and at other venues around the city when I was growing up and involved in Milapfest. The most significant project that we worked on together was ‘Within You Without You’, a concert in 2017 that explored George Harrison’s discovery of Indian music and spiritual thought, and the effect it had on The Beatles.
That was the first time I’d brought together Indian musicians to form an ensemble, and three of those musicians went on to play on my album Anomaly. Some of the music that we did in that concert actually inspired Anomaly: at the end of the show we did a big version of Within You Without You, and that became the precursor to the album’s closing track Redemption (reprise). So that was very much a formative project for me.
Returning to Liverpool is going to be great. This will be our debut show at The Tung Auditorium, but it’s going to feel like familiar territory with all those associations, memories and friends from the past, and we’re really looking forward to performing Anomaly.
It's the last concert of the tour for us, and the audience have got so much to look forward to: we have an ensemble of nine musicians, including some of the best Indian classical musicians in the country. It’s going to be a magical evening”.
Reed All About It
“It’s a bit geeky…” smiled our Executive Director of Finance Stephan Heaton as we sat down for the workshop. As well as managing the books here at Liverpool Philharmonic, Stephan is an oboist and he had invited a big name of the double reed world to come along to the Hall. Travelling all the way from Frankfurt, Germany, Udo Heng, the General Manager of Reeds ‘n Stuff, had arrived in Liverpool to deliver a masterclass – a personalised deep dive into crafting and perfecting those pieces of cane that can make or break the woodwind section. And assembled to soak up his wisdom and experience were players from the Orchestra – oboists and cor anglais players Ruth Davies, Anna Cooper and Drake Gritton, bassoonists Rebekah Abramski and Gareth Twigg, and Ruth’s oboist daughter, Ella.
So, a little context… Reeds ‘n Stuff is a company that designs and manufactures machines that help bassoonists et al. get their reeds just right. The passion project of Udo, the company came about as he (himself an oboist) grew frustrated with the old, inadequate equipment available to double reed players and began coming up with ideas to revolutionise the process of reed making. The business grew, and now Reeds ‘n Stuff produces impressive kits and machines to help musicians get their reed production down to a fine art.
Well, I say a fine art, but reed making seems to be an intricately complex mix of incredible scientific precision, an artistic touch… and also trial and error. If, like me, you’re completely new to the mystical world of reed production, here’s the low-down on the process.
A double reed player first takes a piece of cane. To the amateur eye, this looks identical to one you’d use in the garden, but don’t be fooled – the type and properties of the cane are key. Then the process begins by splitting the cane into three pieces. Next up, time for gouging – manipulating the cane until it’s the desired thickness. Then we have shaping, where the newly slimmed down cane is cut into the required shape. And finally, the reed undergoes profiling – the consuming (almost obsessive) process of shaving and scraping and cutting the reed until it’s completely perfect. This can happily take hours and hours.
So there’s a set method, but it’s certainly capable of inducing madness… It’s a process of so many variables – different types of cane behave and react differently, cane ‘grows’ as the fibres absorb water, different points on the reed affect different aspects of the sound it produces, and, ultimately, each player, instrument and piece require different shapes and styles of reed – and a millimetre of cane can make all the difference.
That’s where Udo steps in… Becoming the first orchestra in the UK to invest in double reed production, Liverpool Philharmonic has purchased some of Udo’s machines – helping musicians perfect the shaping and profiling of their reeds. Double reed players are taught to make reeds by hand, just using their instincts, experience and a Stanley knife to guide them – but Udo’s machines make the process a whole lot easier and quicker. So no wonder there was a real sense of excitement amongst the Orchestra musicians gathered at the workshop as Udo set out his machines and demonstrated the wonders they were capable of – for a double reed player, it was like Christmas had come early.
A font of knowledge, Udo fielded questions from the group over the next few hours, sitting down with every musician to help them adjust the machines and personalise their reeds. Conversation bounced from calibration to millimetre-perfect dimensions, virtuosos of the double reed community to varieties of cane. As a newcomer to this world, it was hard not to be impressed by the precision and craft behind the process, if not a little overwhelmed, and that feeling only increased as Udo leant over to show me a few fine shavings of cane taken by the shaping machine – “that right there is an entire world for an oboist”, he said.
Chatting to the players as they pored over cases of perfectly prepared canes, it became clear just how much of their practising time is spent tinkering with and finetuning their reeds. “There’s no point having the notes at the point of perfection if the reed isn’t – and vice versa. It’s so important to strike a balance between making reeds and practising the piece,” they say. “And always have a back-up practice reed.” It’s a process that’s different for everyone, varying from continent to continent (Americans are “obsessed with constant reed making”, says Udo, whereas Europeans “start the process way ahead of when the reed is needed – they know that things in life take time”), and player to player. Some are more scientific in their approach, knowing the exact measurements of different reeds, while others rely more on an artistic flair and general feel of the cane. And of course, it is a hugely personal thing – two players using the same reed on the same instrument can produce two totally different sounds.
As the workshop wrapped up, and instruments and machines were packed away, you could see just how passionate each person in that room was about their craft – and how grateful the players were to Udo for helping to make their reed-making (and therefore lives…) that little bit more straightforward.
A huge thank you to Stephan for arranging the day, and to Udo for sharing your knowledge and skills here at the Hall – hopefully you’ll see our players (and their perfect reeds) in Germany soon.
This March we welcome Sir Bryn Terfel to Liverpool Philharmonic Hall when he will join the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and singers from the European Opera Centre for dramatised performances of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. You’ll probably have heard the beautiful aria ‘O mio babbino caro’ sung in the opera by Lauretta, Gianni Schicchi’s daughter.
We spoke with Kenneth Baird, Chief Executive of the European Opera Centre, who gave us a backstage insight into the casting process for this performance:
Last summer we put out a call for singers to be considered for all the roles in Gianni Schicchi apart from the title role and the seven-year-old Gherardino – sung by a treble. This is our twelfth opera with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and our third with Sir Bryn.
When the European Opera Centre began in 1996, emails were hardly in use and websites were rarities for arts organisations. International travel was essential to find singers, as was an extensive operation to notify conservatoires, national music information points, artists’ agents, singing teachers and so on. Within Europe, there were then very few opera studios or opera training programmes.
A generation on, early career artists can be reached internationally through a couple of websites (although we still send out notifications to supplement these). So, for Gianni Schicchi several hundred singers applied to us from 46 countries. Each application, which includes biographical, audio and visual material, is considered meticulously by the Centre’s Artistic Advisor, Laurent Pillot. The quality of audio and visual electronic communication now readily available internationally makes this initial assessment through these means possible, which was certainly not the case in the 1990s.
As a conductor, Laurent Pillot has worked all his professional life in opera including at the Opéra National de Lyon and in Los Angeles where he was Associate Music Director working with the Centre’s President, Kent Nagano. He founded the Opera Studio at the Bavarian State Opera where his work was the subject of three one-hour documentaries made for television. He is highly skilled in hearing the potential in developing artists. A short-list of twenty to thirty singers is arrived at with selected candidates invited to Laurent Pillot’s home city of Lyon to work with him. The only criterion used is suitability for the role.
People have often asked whether the Centre is about finding stars. Stars tend to come to public attention purely through their outstanding talent. The Centre aims to help talented people wanting to pursue careers in opera from education to professional engagement. That is not to say that leading singers have not emerged. Anita Hartig – the fine soprano soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which launched Domingo Hindoyan’s first season as Chief Conductor – attended one of the Centre’s training programmes in Ireland: she came to Liverpool in 2021 before heading to the Metropolitan Opera, New York to sing Mimi in La bohème. She is one of many of the Centre’s alumni now pursuing careers at a high level around the world.
New Year, New Music?
Read more, spend less, move more, eat less: all the classic resolutions get rolled out every year… We’re three days into 2023 – have you managed to keep up with your self-imposed self-improvement promises?
Or how about doing something different this year… The staff here at Liverpool Philharmonic have put together a selection of musical New Year’s resolutions – a collection of tracks they believe everyone should add to their playlists in 2023. There’s old stuff in there, some new, some classics, a whole mix of genres – so why not expand your musical horizons with us this year?
It’s not Christmas without a retelling of A Christmas Carol – you might be a fan of 1950s masterpiece Scrooge or maybe even Kermit’s take on the classic, but get ready for the Liverpool Philharmonic version. With our annual festive extravaganza Spirit of Christmas fast approaching, we’re turning to our old pal Dickens for inspiration (fun fact: the man himself performed here at the Hall in 1852!), and journeying through the glittering delights of Spirits of Christmas past, present and yet to come, with Artistic Planning Director Sandra Parr as our guide.
Chapter 1 – Spirits of Christmas Past
From day one, Spirit of Christmas wasn’t your ordinary carol concert. Bringing as much of the Liverpool Philharmonic family – the Orchestra, Choirs and audiences – together as possible, it was a sparkling celebration of the music and magic of Christmas. Guest stars would dazzle the Hall – not least broadcaster John Suchet, who led us through the first Spirit of Christmas in 2011 and continued to host for ten years. “John became Mr Christmas if you like,” says Sandra, “he was so much part of our Spirit of Christmas”, so when he hung up his famous red tie last year, we had to give him a wonderful send-off. As a nod to John’s journalistic past, the Orchestra performed Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter. “It was a great gag – everyone loved it. John really enjoyed doing it and Graham Johns [percussion] really, really enjoyed doing it!” But there was one more festive treat for John… “I knew he’d always wanted to conduct the Orchestra, and I thought this is a moment if ever there was one. When he eyed up Ian Tracey’s baton resting on the podium, I dared him to lift it up and the Orchestra played Radetzky!”
Of course, the star atop our Spirit of Christmas tree has always been our guest artists. Over the years we’ve hosted internationally renowned stars such as Jennifer Johnston, and the Samuelsens, and introduced up-and-coming talents such as accordionist Ksenija Sidorova. “We’ve had someone playing the uilleann pipes – Kathryn Tickell. I’ve tried to alternate between singers and instrumentalists and it’s really interesting to see how different instruments can bring different things.” Of course, working on such a huge event can bring complications, but it wouldn’t be Christmas without a little chaos – even if that means waiting anxiously for a call to say your star tenor (friend of Liverpool Philharmonic, Jesús León) will be back from an emergency hospital visit in time for the concert… “We haven’t had too many hiccups though,” laughs Sandra, “and I hope I haven’t just jinxed that now!”
What’s most remembered of Spirits of Christmas past, however, is often the more contemplative moments – the ones that stay with you long after. “A big goosebump moment for me was in 2014 where we marked 100 years since the start of World War One,” recalls Sandra. “John did the most amazing reading while the choir sang I’ll Be Home for Christmas, and on the back wall was a very foggy picture of the poppy fields and a ghostly image of a soldier... there weren’t many dry eyes in the house.” Another much-remembered moment came when the Choir sang O Radiant Dawn by James MacMillan in near-total darkness. “We asked the Choir to sing from memory, which I don’t think they were terribly happy about at first, but the impact was amazing. The way the piece builds, the lighting we had going with it – it was another moment where both musically and theatrically the whole thing really worked together.”
Chapter 2 – Spirit of Christmas Present
Now it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for – let’s take a sneak peek at our Christmas present! Stepping into John Suchet’s shoes is the one-and-only Kadiatu (Kadie) Kanneh-Mason – “she adores Christmas and it just struck me that she’d be a fantastic person to link the programme”. She’s visited the Hall before with her superstar children Isata and Sheku, but now it’s her turn to enchant our audiences… So, in the last few weeks, our Spirit of Christmas elves Sandra and Kadie have been hard at work crafting a real extravaganza of a show that we know will go down an absolute treat.
As is tradition, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir will take to the stage – and both are preparing a real Christmas cracker of a performance. The adult Choir are bringing their favourites, alongside some new works, and the Youth Choir are ready to show off what they can do – “they’re on a par with the best youth choirs around the country”, so expect some seasonal magic. The Hall will be transformed into a glittering Christmas grotto, thanks to our Design team and backstage crew who have been busy dreaming up stunning imagery and lighting effects. There are new arrangements of classics from Timothy Jackson, Ian Stephens and Hywel Davies and powerful, rousing parts to the programme, “that big rumble of the organ leading up to ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ ”, but there’ll be quieter points too – prepare for a moving “tearjerker musical moment reflecting on a part of the world where there’s a lot of sadness at the minute”. And then there’s the sparkling bow finishing off this Spirit of Christmas present – a “ball of fire and personality, just a born entertainer”, our Artist in Residence trumpeter Pacho Flores, who returns to Liverpool for some festive, fiesta fun. “So there’s a lot going on – I don’t think you’re ever bored at a Spirit of Christmas concert!”
Chapter 3 – Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come
Christmas comes just once a year? Not at Liverpool Philharmonic! “While everyone’s munching their way through Easter eggs, I’m quite often flipping through Carols for Choirs thinking what should we do this year”, says Sandra. “In the middle of June, Ian Tracey and I start hatching our plans and ideas, but we tweak and tweak – there are several drafts throughout the year.” Seasonal business is serious business and in fact, Sandra sees getting the Spirit of Christmas programme right as “one of the most difficult parts of [her] job”. The concert has become such an institution that there are plenty of boxes to tick – “people want to be entertained, to laugh, to have a moment to reflect”, they want favourite carols but some new music too. So even now, Sandra’s arranging guest artists for next year, making lists “in the back of [her] diary”, finding “scribbled notes in the car”, jotting down ideas as she sits in rehearsals. But of course, she’s keeping the magic alive and won’t share those just yet.
How about if she could bring one old Spirit of Christmas back to the stage? “I’ve loved every single concert, but if I could see one again, it would be the very first one, with trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth, I’d just love to have her back.” And maybe one day she’ll be here again… Spirit of Christmas has become an important tradition for so many – artists return, audiences come back and sit in the same seats “their parents and grandparents did”. The whole occasion just touches their hearts, “and that’s exactly what we want from Spirit of Christmas.”
Meet… Isata Kanneh-Mason
It’s clear that Liverpool means a lot to Isata Kanneh-Mason, and it’s easy to understand why. If you trace back through this young piano star’s career, the city, its cultural scene and our very own Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra have provided the soundtrack to some of her most memorable moments and milestones.
“I love working with the Liverpool Philharmonic and I love going to Liverpool”, beamed Isata as we caught up with her recently. And the feeling goes both ways. Following show-stopping collaborations with the Orchestra in the past – so harmonious that one critic described it as “music-making between friends” – Isata has recently begun her second season as Young Artist in Residence here at Liverpool Philharmonic. “It’s just so nice to have that connection and to be able to go back often”, she says. “There’s a really special connection with the city and with the Orchestra – it’s just lovely to still have that.”
Isata’s link to the city goes beyond her tenure as Young Artist in Residence though. She recorded her chart-topping debut album, Romance, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra back in 2019, then returned two years later to record her album of American classics, Summertime, at the Hall. Those releases helped cement her status as a star of the classical world and a Liverpool Philharmonic favourite, but recording them was a rollercoaster through the highs and lows of life as a concert musician. “An album typically has a lot more time and detail put into it than anything else,” she explains. “When you see that it’s finally finished, that’s very rewarding because that’s something that’s there forever…but it’s challenging. It takes the most out of you.”
And it won’t be long until Isata is back in Liverpool, performing the first of her concerts this season. Later this month, she’ll be at the Hall to perform Dohnányi’s tour de force Variations on a Nursery Tune, again in April to take on Prokofiev’s powerful Piano Concerto No.3 and once more in May with a chamber concert featuring works by Germaine Tailleferre, Mendelssohn and Eleanor Alberga. As you can see, she’s bringing an eclectic mix of music with her, and it seems that every single work is a true favourite. “They’re pieces that I’ve loved for many years, pieces that I heard and was just instantly drawn to and excited by and listened to over and over again.” It seems that all her repertoire selections are motivated by a simple sense of passion and excitement – “that’s really how I choose all my pieces, just a feeling of loving the piece and wanting to play it.”
So with performances fast approaching, we asked what a typical concert day looks like. “Basically, I just try and be as relaxed as possible,” she says. Not over-practising is key – just a couple of hours earlier that day, then an hour or so at the venue trying out the piano. “I always stretch before I go on stage, have some water, then just get changed and go.” Seems simple, but then there’s the scary part – that walk to the piano under the lights. “There’s really no set thing I think about before I walk onstage,” she insists. “If I’m feeling particularly nervous about a certain bit, I might be thinking about that, or if there’s someone that I know in the audience, then I might be thinking about that, or I could just be thinking about something random that happened earlier on in the day.”
Regardless, Isata says that that buzz of adrenaline is always there and always the same. It’s best to limit that nervous energy and excitement as much as possible though: “I think psychologically hanging around in the venue before the concert just doesn’t feel good,” says Isata. So where does she escape to when she’s here at the Hall? “I actually love Liverpool Cathedral. I go there most times and just sit in the gardens that are near there. I just think that whole part of the city is really beautiful.”
Isata Kanneh-Mason is our 2022/23 Young Artist in Residence. She’s performing with us on 17 & 20 November, 27 & 30 April and 19 May – book your tickets here.
Beyond the Baton
The conductor can be a rather mysterious player in an orchestra. They appear on stage as our guide through musical landscapes, holding in their expressive hands every sound and every silence, peeling back scores familiar and unknown to reveal the tiny details hidden within. But what makes a conductor? What skills, practices and experiences allow them to lead an orchestra with such expertise and conviction? We sat down with our Chief Conductor, Domingo Hindoyan, to find out more about him and the ins and outs of life as a conductor.
So to start at the very beginning – how does our Chief Conductor begin his day? “Concert days, rehearsal days, recording days, days off – all the same,” Domingo tells us. “Most importantly, I have breakfast. A very important part of the day and I love them – especially the English breakfast in Liverpool!” After some nourishment, it’s time to turn to the music. And for a conductor, that means studying scores. “Not just the scores for the music that week, but they may be scores of concerts I am doing in a few weeks’ time. I prefer to work with paper scores, though I do also carry music on my iPad. I would need several suitcases to be able to transport all the music I have to learn at any one time – the opera scores can be very heavy!”
For Domingo, studying a score is much more than just memorising a composition – it’s the beginning of endless possibilities. “I love the smell of the paper in a new score,” he says, “opening the book and flicking the pages through – then slowly enjoying each page.” Beyond the notes themselves, Domingo also spends time studying the background of a piece – “the context of compositions, why they were written and when, what was the inspiration.” Together, all of this information synthesises into his own original approach to a score. “I analyse so many things before I even think about bringing it to a first rehearsal.”
Of course, Domingo cannot spend his whole day buried in scores. It is orchestra sessions that allow the conductor to realise his musical vision for a piece. “Each session, whether recording or concert or rehearsal, is the same for me,” he insists. “We try our best. We think about what we could do differently or better.” This meticulous approach allows Domingo to really refine his ideas collaboratively alongside his fellow musicians.
On live performance days, the time in the run up to a concert is crucial. “Generally I try to stay focussed on the music which I am about to conduct,” Domingo explains. “Usually just reading the scores with a coffee…and [I] try not to be distracted by emails that are constantly arriving on my phone.” Ever-studious, Domingo must also ensure he doesn’t lose track of time – “I must remember to allow time to get dressed ready for the concert too!” Depending on the score or the music being performed, the conductor’s approach can vary. Sometimes he has friends and family with him in his dressing room, in which case he likes to “chat about something totally different” to clear his head. Once out on stage in front of an audience “anything can happen, but we just carry on playing”.
Now in his second season with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Domingo has many great memories of concerts performed alongside our musicians. His first time conducting the Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall last year springs to his mind – “[it was] live on the radio and the excitement – wow – something I will never forget!” Other performances stand out – “Bluebeard’s Castle and Tchaikovsky 6 and Beethoven 9 and Bruckner…oh, how can I choose!” As a conductor, what difference does developing an ongoing relationship with an orchestra make? “We are growing every day and understand each other more and more each week. We now know each other very well,” Domingo says warmly. “The musicians do things before I even ask!” And this growing trust does not just go one-way. “We share ideas too.” He recalls a rehearsal for Boléro earlier in the week where he allowed the ‘solo’ instruments to freely play without his direction, following their lead. Certainly, we see this deep trust and understanding between the musicians play out beautifully when they take the stage.
When he is not with us at the Hall, Domingo travels globally, taking his talents to many diverse orchestras. “I have been lucky to be able to work all over the world, with many musical friends,” he says. However, for all the excitement this profession brings, the travelling can take a toll. For Domingo it’s the most challenging part of the role. “Too many queues at airports. Too many suitcases to pack and unpack. And too many very early morning flights…”, which also means no time to have his beloved English breakfast!
We are talking to Domingo at an exciting time for the conductor. He has recently released his very first CD, and his first CD with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, a compilation of French classics that are close to his heart – “I am very happy with it,” he says modestly. While any performance is made of the same elements, there are some unique challenges to recording with an orchestra. Recording sessions are “intense” with a focus on being “very time efficient. We have to have a plan.” Performing must be balanced with short breaks to listen back, deciding whether to move on or go back and record again. “We must watch that the players do not get tired too early.” This can mean alternating louder sections with less demanding ones. How does Domingo himself keep his energy up? “A colleague backstage knows me well…there are always cookies lying around in the recording room!”
It’s the most exciting time of year here at Liverpool Philharmonic – the Orchestra kicks off a new season, the Music Room hosts its first concerts after the summer break, our Learning programmes get ready for the start of the school term... With all these new beginnings happening around us, we thought we’d get in on the act, so here we are – welcome to the brand-new, official Liverpool Philharmonic blog!
We’ll be posting regular updates about everything that’s going on at Liverpool Philharmonic: taking you behind-the-scenes of events, showcasing different parts of our programme, chatting to artists, sharing playlists, exploring musical works and the people, places and stories behind them – it’ll be everything you’ll need to get your fill of the Philharmonic.
So new blog, new season – it makes sense to start by exploring a theme and genre that will be popping up in many of our 2022/23 concerts. When putting the programme together this year, our Chief Conductor Domingo Hindoyan was keen to pack the season with pieces inspired by folk music. A genre that celebrates diversity, the sharing of stories and histories and the coming together of communities, it seems to carry a special relevance and poignancy in our world today – and to set the tone for the season, our very first concert is infused with flavours of folk. Both composers featured in this concert recognised the power and significance of the folk tradition, building it into their works with differing motivations and effect.
Let’s look at the first piece the Orchestra will take on – Janáček’s mighty Sinfonietta. Leoš Janáček was many things: a composer, a tutor, a critic, a conductor. He was also an avid collector of national folk songs and a hugely patriotic Czech, and these two traits really come to the fore in Sinfonietta. Composed in the 1920s, when nationalist feeling was growing throughout Europe, and in the wake of Czech independence, the piece was to open ‘Sokol’ festival – an event celebrating sport, youth and Czechoslovakia’s nationhood. Janáček normally turned down commissions, but this one was right up his street. Quite literally. He named movements after locations in his hometown of Brno and dedicated Sinfonietta to the Czech army, opening and closing the work with brazen, floor-shakingly powerful military brass fanfares. Of course, a piece recognising his nation’s culture and spirit was also the perfect place for Janáček to indulge in his passion for Czech folklore. He peppered the work – and the second movement in particular – with rhythms and melodies from traditional dances. Five-note pentatonic themes (i.e. the black notes on the piano), common in Czech/Moravian folk and perhaps reflecting tones made by the traditional instruments shepherds played, crop up in Sinfonietta’s opening. More orchestral passages are interrupted by folk motifs, traditional Czech/Moravian melodies and rapid, free folk-inspired strings. What we’re left with is a mix of orchestral grandeur and melodic national pride – a lovingly crafted musical portrait of his beloved homeland’s identity and traditions.
Then we have Gustav Mahler. A composer known for masterful symphonies, expansive in scope and force, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony seems different. It’s lighter and shorter, more childlike – perhaps Mahler getting back to ‘basics’, getting back to his roots… See where we’re going with this? The symphony celebrates nature and youth, and Mahler thought that the folk tradition was the perfect match for this. He liked its simplicity, how it was familiar, down-to-earth and served as a kind of cornerstone of human experience, so it’s woven deep within the fabric of the symphony. He introduces Freund Hein – a figure in German folklore who represents death – in the second movement and nods to folk melodies appear throughout the work. The biggest infusion of folklore, however, comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Published early in the nineteenth century, this was a set of German traditional poems and songs, compiled by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Armin. Containing texts that focused on love, bravery, children’s songs and wandering in nature, the collection painted a romanticised picture of folklore, and its editors saw it as a celebration of German culture. The work impressed many famous cultural figures and it served as lasting inspiration for Mahler – he wrote a song cycle which borrowed the collection’s name, and, in fact, over half the songs Mahler ever composed incorporated lyrics from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Having explored Earth, wonder and the universe in the course of his Fourth Symphony, Mahler closed the work with a return to his favourite folk poetry. He used the song ‘Das himmlische Leben’, which portrays a child’s view of heaven and whose words were taken from, you guessed it, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Mahler set this folk poem to relatively relaxed and unsophisticated music, perhaps aiming to reflect the humble origins of the text. Mahler’s nods to folk didn’t seem to sit well with critics at the time – some found them ‘unoriginal’ and jarring alongside ‘high’ musical styles. But Mahler’s Fourth grew in popularity, seen as accessible yet bursting with colour and character – much like folklore itself.
After a start like that, it’s little surprise that folk sounds echo throughout the entire season, appearing in different guises, from different cultures and interpreted by different composers. We’re bringing you works by former Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Conductor Max Bruch, including his Scottish Fantasy – a piece absolutely overflowing with references to traditional Scottish folk melodies. Dvořák was another composer who frequently drew inspiration from Czech folklore. His New World symphony appears in programmes in November and contains themes which evoke the character and rhythms of Czech folk dances. The Orchestra also take on Dvořák’s The Wood Dove – a piece that tells a murderous and scandalous tale from a Czech folk poem of the same name. Vaughan Williams’ Running Set – a work named after a traditional British folk dance – appears in an October concert. He wrote this lively piece to feature at the 1934 National Folk Dance Festival, and Celtic fiddle tunes and traditional folk dance melodies make up its very core. And how could we leave out Bela Bartók – the true master of folk songs. A great collector of Hungarian folk music, Bartók infused his score for the ballet The Wooden Prince with many elements of the genre. Folk motifs which hark back to traditional Hungarian dances are used to represent certain characters within the music, and as the ballet’s story comes to an end, the Hungarian folk tune Fly, Peacock can be heard. In the concert where the Orchestra take on music from that ballet, our Young Artist in Residence Isata Kanneh-Mason also performs Dohnányi’s Variations on a Nursery Tune. That piece opens with perhaps one of the most famous folk tunes of all – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
It's clear that folk represents different things to many. It can evoke a sense of place, a past, a future, a people, a story – or perhaps a combination of all. Music has helped allow folk traditions to live on, helped the genre continue to captivate and bring people together – as it will do in the Hall this season.
Season Opening Concert
All images from Wikimedia Commons