Friday, 17 April 2015

What Makes a Good Conductor?

This week sees the 91st birthday of Sir Neville Marriner. That’s ninety-one, yes you did read it right, and still as active as ever. In light of this remarkable achievement, I am writing this week about what makes a good conductor and speculating as to why so many have had such successful and long careers.

It is no myth that a good conductor can make an unbelievable difference to an orchestra. But before we delve into specific conductors, I would like to clarify just what I mean by a “good” conductor. Everyone will have differing opinions on what makes a good conductor; so much so, that the attributes a conductor has may make one person see them as a good conductor, and another as completely awful. Every opinion we have is subjective, especially on a subject such as music. It still astounds me that two people can walk into a concert hall to hear a performance and they can walk out with totally differing opinions of what they just heard. Despite sitting in the same position, hearing exactly the same performance, they still feel differently about what they just heard.

Anyway, back to what I actually aimed to write this blog about…

Our own patron, Sir Roger Norrington, celebrated his 81st birthday a month ago; granted, he is still 10 years younger than Sir Neville, but it is still an incredible feat. I had a conversation with one of our players after a rehearsal with Sir Roger in March. I asked her how the rehearsal went and her reply was just brilliant:

“The rehearsal was fantastic. It amazes me that Roger still manages to bring something new and fresh to the orchestra whenever he conducts. I’m not even sure what he does, but he works magic and everyone around him reacts in such a special way.”

I think this is fascinating to hear; to think that an 81 year old can still bring a fresh outlook on a piece of music more than 200 years old is astonishing. He has always been an innovator, thinking outside the box with his unconventional musical views in the eyes of the western world (interestingly, he of course would say they were conventional).

With these two legends of the conducting world still going so strongly at the ages they are, it begs the question – is conducting the healthiest profession? There have been many greats who have lived well into their 80s and 90s over the past century; Leopold Stokowski (95), Arturo Toscanini (90) and Sir Adrian Boult (94) to name but a few. It has been said on numerous occasions that conductors are healthy due to the amount of physical effort involved; conducting Mahler's 8th symphony, for example, means 80 minutes of arm waving, baton flicking and body swaying.Not only do they use physical effort, a lot of mental preparation is required in the lead up to a concert; conductors spend hours searching through scores, meticulously marking in notes. It really is a full body workout that rivals some you would see in a gym...!

To finish though, I would like to focus very briefly on Leonard Bernstein, who lived until his 72nd year (granted, not quite the 91 of Sir Neville but still a fair age). If I could go back in time to watch a concert in which he was conducting, I would without a hesitation. I find him fascinating. My favourite conducting video of his on youtube, though, is one where he actually doesn’t conduct with his hands at all…enjoy!

This is actually the last blog I will write for Southern Sinfonia, as I am off to pastures new. Thank you all for taking the time to read my musings over the past 8 months; I hope you have enjoyed at least one of them!

Have you got a favourite conductor? Or even a favourite recording by a specific conductor? Get in touch via our websiteFacebook or Twitter page.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Is Classical Music Dying? – No! But Education is Vital

Another day, another person claiming that classical music is dying. This week’s statement comes from Conductor Kent Nagano who is reported to have said that classical music could be “gone in a generation”. He cited budget cuts and a lack of music education as his reasoning for this, stating that “"there is a problem in communication” and the modern generation see classical music as "something that belongs to the past". 

It is very easy to dismiss this as something that has been said a hundred times before. There is however, in my opinion, a lot to consider in the idea that a lack of music education could have devastating effects. Not just necessarily on the classical music industry, but the music industry as a whole. Whilst there are many commendable efforts to resolve the situation, in the UK for example The Arts Council, on behalf of the Department for Education, have invested more than £171 million of funding between August 2012 and March 2015 in a network of 123 Music education hubs across England. As well as this smaller community and musical groups are also running local programmes (find out more about our own programme here). However a recent report from Ofsted on music in schools reported, “far too much provision was inadequate or barely satisfactory. Nearly all schools recognised the importance of promoting a diverse range of musical styles but far fewer had a clear understanding about how all students should make good musical progress as they moved through the curriculum”. A situation that appears to be repeated worldwide, in 2009, California diverted $109 million from music programs. This led to the closure of music departments across half of California's 10,000-plus public schools.

This isn’t just worrying from a “classical music is dying” point of view. Teaching music directly benefits learning and aids learning and growth in other subjects too. From the science seen in a musical score, the mathematics in rhythms, the physical education from the use of muscles when playing and the knowledge of culture and foreign language that comes from historical pieces. The reasons to insist we teach young people music really are endless and for me the most important element of Kent Nagano’s comments.

In terms of his wider comments about classical music dying, well… this is a debate that isn’t going to end with his comments anymore than it began with them. You can argue that funding cuts have led to less avenues for people to explore music, however you could also argue that technology has made classical music more accessible than it has ever been. When I was younger it would have cost me a lot of money to purchase a range of classical music pieces on cassette and CD. Now someone could lose days exploring titles and numerous performances of these titles on YouTube.

Another argument those fearing classical music is nearing its end use is the fact that its audience is traditionally older. The counter argument to this is the fact that cinema, video games and new mainstream pop acts (do I need to talk about Clean Bandit on this blog AGAIN?) are introducing classical music to new audiences. Whether it’s traditional performances at the BBC Proms or events such as the OAE Night Shift series designed to be unique and reach a new younger audience, attendance figures of all ages are still high.

In my opinion Kent Nagano doesn’t need to be as negative on the wider situation, as he is, however he is definitely right about music in education. The exciting and appealing thing about this topic is this is just my opinion, every classical music fan has a different opinion on this subject and that is why it keeps coming up and is constantly discussed.

What are your thoughts? Is classical music dying? How serious is the situation in music education? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Chocolates, Countdowns and a Concert – Looking ahead at the Easter Weekend

It’s Easter!!! OK that doesn’t have quite the same impact as Noddy Holder screeching ‘It’s Christmaaaaaas’ but it doesn’t change the fact that tomorrow is Good Friday and the start of a 4-day Easter weekend! Excitingly for Southern Sinfonia this year’s Easter weekend starts with a performance at the Lighthouse in Poole. Tomorrow evening we join forces with Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and conductor Gavin Carr for a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. There is something special about performing music at a time it was composed to be performed. As most are no doubt aware St. Matthew Passion is divided in two parts to be performed on Good Friday. Tomorrow’s performance will no doubt inspire the same thrills that playing Handel’s Messiah at Christmas time stirs up.  
In the wider classical music world a number of people on our social media news feeds are beginning to get excited about the unveiling of this years Classic FM Hall of Fame. This year marks the 20th year of the countdown and the question many seem to be asking is simple:
Does The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams deserve to remain number one?
At the time of writing Twitter certainly seems to think so, supportive tweets include “some think Lark Ascending is over exposed but it just has to be the most relaxing 15 minutes in Classical Music” and “There's nothing so relaxing as listening to 'The lark Ascending' while doing DIY. Thanks for the tunes RVW and #ClassicFM”.
Personally I agree that the piece is incredibly powerful to listen to. The way the music evolves creates vivid images of English summertime and countryside. I also think the Hall of Fame countdown should rightly take cultural impact into account. From its influences on Milford, Alwyn and many others to its appearance in films, sporting events, plays and of course Coronation Street, the piece has embedded itself into the minds of musicians and non musicians alike. Richard Brewer, who many of you will know from his work at Southern Sinfonia and superb blog writing, had this to say...
"It's true that the Lark Ascending is 15 minutes of pure bliss. We played it in Bath Abbey back in November with the wonderful Madeleine Easton showing us how it's done. Whilst I do enjoy the piece, I am a firm believer that there is so much more incredible music out there that never gets a mention. The Classic FM Hall of Fame is fantastic for classical music; for some, it may even be the only time they listen to the genre all year. However, my belief is that there are a huge number of other pieces that equally deserve the top spot. I definitely couldn't decide myself though..."
Between chocolate, tomorrows concert and the Classic FM Hall of Fame there are clearly a number of reasons to be excited for this weekend, what are your plans? Will you be joining us in Poole for St. Matthew Passion? Click here if you want to find out more including ticket details. Will you be listening to the Hall of Fame countdown? Do you think The Lark Ascending should be number one again? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter. You can also visit our website to find out more about Southern Sinfonia.
We hope you have a brilliant weekend whatever your plans may be. Happy Easter!

Friday, 27 March 2015

Video Games Live

By Richard Brewer 

A useless fact that you may or may not want to know about me is that I always read the Metro on my way to work in the morning. The majority of this paper is fairly useless information that will make no difference to the way I live my life. Sometimes, however, there a couple of little gems. 

On Wednesday, in the section called Scene (Music, Film, TV and Comedy), there was an article titled “Video games set to thrill harmonic”. Despite the rather cheesy title, the article actually describes a new event which fuses video gaming and a live orchestra. As a fan of both entities, this is an extremely exciting venture. A great deal of music written for video games is fantastic, and even warrants CD releases as its own entity (the LSO actually recently recorded the soundtrack to The Final Fantasy series for symphony orchestra). 
Video Games Live will hit the UK this week before headlining none other than the Royal Albert Hall next year. It is labelled as an “immersive concert of scores from classic games, performed by a live orchestra”. The orchestra will simply play one big medley of soundtracks from a variety of different games, satisfying all types of gamers. It won't just be a standard concert, though; Video Games Live will use a huge LED display snowing sections of the games as the medley moves through the different soundtracks. The show even boasts the opportunity for one lucky participant to play a game live on stage, whilst the orchestra will follow their movements in real time. For a gaming enthusiast, this will be an absolutely exhilarating experience; logistically, it could be slightly challenging for the orchestra and conductor. But that's not for us to worry about anyway.

In my opinion, the most important aspect of this scheme is the attraction it will hold towards the younger generation. Music education is, as ever, a huge problem; initiatives such as the BBC's “Ten Pieces” are attacking this problem, with the majority of their efforts concentrated on primary school education. An area that is perhaps slightly neglected though is 14-19 year olds. A project such as Video Games Live is arguably a perfect solution for a great number of those in this age bracket. The vast majority of teenagers use video games, spending hours playing them, and in turn listening to the music. Without them knowing, they have become fans of the music; with Video Games Live, perhaps they will see classical music in a better light than before! 
With the ongoing battle with music education, initiatives such as Video Games Live will no doubt make a difference. Granted, it isn't Mozart and Beethoven, but it's a start; it's within the classical music genre and could even inspire audience members to pick up the Violin. We must continue to challenge the limits of classical concerts, without challenge, who knows what could happen. 

To find out more about Southern Sinfonia please visit our website, Facebook or Twitter page.

Friday, 20 March 2015

"Creative and Playful" - Further Classical Interpretations on Modern Songs

You may remember at the end of January I wrote an article about the way classical instruments (or indeed any instrument) and different arrangements can be used to enhance a song, change its tone and make it appeal to completely different audiences. A number of people told us that they enjoyed the article and loved watching and listening to alternative versions of the songs chosen. This was all the encouragement I needed to select 5 more covers that reflected and stimulated discussion surrounding this theme!

‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis performed by Noel Gallagher with Crouch End Choir and Wired Strings 

No matter what genre is being played and no matter who is playing it, the Royal Albert Hall is still an incredible venue to host concerts. However despite it’s iconic look and feel adding to a number of rock concerts over the years (The Killers released a live DVD filmed at the venue that is particularly good), something about its design and atmosphere cries out for classical input. The fact that Noel Gallagher is accompanied by Crouch End Choir and Wired Strings and performing in this setting makes this version of the iconic song so effective. Whilst it isn’t necessarily a reimagining of the song and there is also still undoubtedly a place for the rawness of the original version, this version manages to feel very special, like people were always meant to hear it played in this way.

‘I Want You Bach’ – “Jackson 5’s funky “I Want You Back” mashed-up with 5 illustrious themes written by J.S. Bach” performed by The Piano Guys

Yep. Bach meets Jackson 5. The combination we were all dreaming off before the talented and imaginative Piano Guys made our wishes a reality! I contemplated saving this until the end of the article because of its sheer uniqueness and quirky nature. However, in many ways the fact that this is such an alternative interpretation makes it a nice contrast to Noel Gallagher playing Wonderwall! The Piano Guys state in the description for this video that “What if the harpsichord from the 1770s hit headlong into the talk box from 1970s? What if J.S. Bach and Jackson 5 met up and just jammed? Would they jive? Can you dig it?” which in many ways perfectly captures the joy of experimenting with music and songs that are already ingrained into peoples consciousness to create something fun and enjoyable for all audiences.

‘All About That Bass’ by Meghan Trainor performed by Postmodern Jukebox featuring Kate Davis


If you like your covers arguably more sophisticated than the Jackson 5/Bach mash up then the above video may be more enjoyable for you. Postmodern Jukebox is known on both YouTube and the live circuit for their clever and different interpretations of modern pop songs. The original version of ‘All About That Bass’ has an upbeat and catchy rhythm that translates perfectly into this jazz interpretation. The fact that Kate Davis is both playing the bass and singing perfectly leads you not being able to look away. As the comments on the video state, the above is creative and playful. 

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen performed by Newton Faulkner 

I grew up listening and watching footage of Queen thanks to my father’s love of the 1970s rock band. As well as watching concerts such as their stunning performance at Wembley Stadium I was lucky enough to see Brian May and Roger Taylor perform with Paul Rogers at Hyde Park. At all of these Queen used video and audio to present the orchestral section of this song. It wasn’t performed live, presumably because of its complexity. However in this interpretation Newton Faulkner performs the whole song. With nothing but a guitar. In front of potentially 50,000 people. In the rain. Whether you like Newton Faulkner or not this is undeniably impressive. The enjoyment and crowd reaction (especially 3.56 minutes into the video) highlights how enjoyable live music can be, whether it’s a full orchestra or one man and a guitar. Whilst the comments section on this particular video debates whether it is so effective because of Newton’s talent or Freddie Mercury and Queen’s song writing, I think it’s a combination of both. Actually I think it doesn’t matter – this is brilliant either way.

‘Supermassive Black Hole’ by Muse performed by Viktoriya Yermolyeva (vkgoeswild) 

Truth be told I could have picked any cover by vkgoeswild, her introduction video explains that when she was growing she performed Bach, Beethoven and a number of other composers. However as she grew up her attention turned to rock and heavy metal music. Her YouTube channel is now full of videos of her performing interpretations of Slipknot, Guns N Roses and Foo Fighters. All these performances showcase fantastic playing and the complex musicality behind heavy metal and rock music. I simply chose this cover of Supermassive Black Hole because it is a particularly complex piece and well… my Southern Sinfonia colleague Richard is a big fan of Muse! At the time of writing the vkgoeswild channel has received over 87,000 views, showcasing if nothing else the popularity of piano music and alternative interpretations of popular songs.

If you would like to get in touch with your favourite videos of covers on classical instruments visit our Facebook, Twitter or Website to contact us.

Don’t forget that two-time Tony Award nominee Jason Carr will be joined by Dame Felicity Lott and Melvin Whitfield for our next café concert ‘Jason Carr and Friends’ which takes place on March 27th at 1.00pm in the Corn Exchange Newbury. Later that evening in St. Nicolas Church, Newbury at 7.30 we will present ‘Classical Celebration II’, a concert that will see us perform Elgar, de Souza and Mozart. Visit our website or links highlighted in this paragraph to purchase tickets.