Vishtèn at the Phil

Last Saturday we went out for the second evening on the trot, having been to a concert by the St Petersburg Philharmonic at the Bridgewater Hall on Friday. Almost unheard of these days! This time we drove into Liverpool for a performance at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall’s Music Room by the Canadian Arcadian folk band Vishtèn. We hadn’t heard of the band before I saw the advert for the concert, but having checked out their website I thought they looked like a good bet for an enjoyable evening – I wasn’t wrong!

Wikipedia tells us that The Acadians 

are the descendants of French colonists who settled in Acadia during the 17th and 18th centuries, some of whom are also descended from the Indigenous peoples of the region.

They were expelled from Canada by the British, and some migrated to Louisiana forming the Cajun population in the USA. But some managed to hang on in Canada.

The trio comprises multi-instrumentalists Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc from the Evangeline Region of Prince Edward Island, and Magdalen Islands’ native, Pascal Miousse……. Together, they pay homage to their traditions and to the historic and strong musical connections between their two island Acadian communities (Band’s website)

Their music is a mix of French, Irish and Scots influences, including energetic reels and lively balads sung in the Acadian French dialect. There were some similarities with Cajun music which I like.

Pastelle, the male member of the band played fiddle and guitar while the two female members, who are twin sisters, played various instruments, including keyboard, accordian, mandolin and tin whistles. They also provide percussion, with their feet! They efffectively tap danced while they were sitting down playing their instruments.

I really enjoyed the evening and have been following up the concert during the past week listening to a CD I bought at the concert and via Spotify. I’d certainly go to see them again if I get the chance.

Synthesisers and Brass

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Saturday evening, the start of what was a busy long weekend, saw us driving over to Liverpool for a concert at the Art Deco Philharmonic Hall. We had tickets to see a concert – a double header with Hannah Peel’s Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia and Tubular Brass’ arrange ent of the classic “Prog Rock” album from the 70’s, Tubular Bells, arranged for a brass band.

These days, I’m a regular listener to BBC 6 Music and I’d heard selections from the Tubular Brass album and the single released by Hannah Peel in advance of the album. I enjoyed both enough to buy tickets to go and see them performed live.

Now Prog Rock has had something of a bad press these days, the cliche being that it was about pompous, overblown tracks by self indulgent musicians. There’s an element of truth in that but I that isn’t the whole story. As a teenager, like many other six formers, I was a fan of bands like Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis and the likes and before they started to take themselves too seriously, I think they produced some good music – even if it did mainly appeal to male sixth formers and students!

The audience was  mainly well over 50 with a scattering of younger faces. Probably made up of an interesting mix of brass band aficionados, prog rock fans of a certain age and others attracted by the plays on Radio 6.

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Hannah Peel was on first and played the whole of her album that had been released only the previous day, although she had performed it at some festivals over the summer. It’s a 7-movement odyssey composed for analogue synths and a full 29-piece colliery brass band and tells the story of an unknown, elderly, pioneering, electronic musical stargazer and her lifelong dream to leave her terraced home in the mining town of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, to see the constellation of Cassiopeia. It’s seems a crazy idea mixing synthesisers and brass but it worked. Hannah was on stage dressed in a silver trouser suit behind a bank of instruments, bringing back memories of the likes of Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, accompanied by the musicians of the Tubular Brass ensemble and with swirling visuals projected on an overhead screen.

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Swooping stellar synths combining and merging with the more down to earth brass and finishing with a recording of Hannah’s grandfather from Manchester Cathedral when he was a young choir boy at the end of the final movement The Planet of Passed Souls.

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After the break it was time for Tubular Bells scored and arranged by Sandy Smith who first encountered the Mike Oldfield album as a teenager when it was released in the mid 70’s.

The original vinyl album was central to our frequent Saturday night house parties, especially as the night drew late and a combination of fatigue and the effects of early experiments with alcohol took hold. It is almost impossible to convey to those not around at the time the seismic impact which the release of Tubular Bells had on young, enquiring musical minds.

The original album consisted of two pieces of music, each taking up a whole side, made up of several sections of multitracked instruments played by Mike Oldfield himself. In the Tubular Brass version the music was played by different combinations of brass instruments. Hannah Peel joined in, introducing the instruments at the end of the first half, originally done by Viv Stanshall on the original album and contributing some synths during the second half. I thought the brass arrangement really worked and, if anything, worked better than the original.

To end the performance the ensemble played 3 prog rock pieces, finishing with a brass arrangement of ELP’s version of Fanfare for the Common Man.

Two great performances. Brass and synthesisers – what’s not to like?

A concert of two halves

 

On Friday evening we went to see the Michael Nyman band perform at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. I've been a fan of the composer ever since we saw the Draughtsman's Contract many many years ago. I have several cds of his work. So I was very much looking forward to the concert.

His band comprised 11 musicians – a string quatet, an electric bass player and brass section (saxaphones, trumpet, trombone, French horn) plus Nyman himself on the piano. They played a selection of his well known works, many of which he had composed for the films of Peter Greenaway.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with the first half. The instruments were all miked up and amplified. The sound balance was wrong with the brass completely overpowering the strings and with the barritone sax too loud in the mix. And I thought that the overall volume was too high making it feel like a “wall of sound” at times and difficult to appreciate some of the subtelties of the music. I noticed that a few people had left at the interval, unless they'd moved to different seats as the large hall was not completely full.

Fortunately things improved dramatically in the second half. I don't know whether they had made some changes to the set up during the interval or whether it was just the particular pieces they were playing were less affected, but in any case I enjoyed the second half and so came away happy enough.

The composer's music is very distinctive, built on repetitive riffs or “ground bases“. The strings being frequently used as a rythymn section, playing incedibly energetically. By the end of the concert one of the violinists bow strings were badly broken and the chellist was obviously suffering from cramp as I noticed him shaking his hand several times during the concert. The female viola player was playing particularly energetically. The works often start with the strings dominating with the volume building as the brass sections take the lead.

The concert started with two favourite pieces from the Draughtsman's contract, Chasing sheep is best left to shepherds and An eye for optical theory. The poor mix became particularly noticeable on the latter and became particularly bad during the two pieces from A Zed and Two Noughts that followed, probably partly because these are not the most melodic of his compositions.

Michael Nyman is keen on football and a fan of Liverpool football club. The piece with which the band started the second half – Memorial – was written in the aftermath of the deaths at the Heysel Stadium during the European. Cup final in 1985 and will be reinterpreted as part of his Symphony dedicated to the Hillsborough disaster which will be performed for the first time at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral on July 5th. It's a moving piece. The half ended with three melodic pieces from his Water dances, the last of these, Splashing being particularly beautiful.

The band received extremely enthusiastic applause from the audience, a large section giving a standing ovation. And we were treated to three encores, the last a solo piano performance by the composer. For me, it turned out to be a good night, but, to borrow a footballing cliche, very much a “concert of two halves”

 

Vivaldi, Jim, but not as we know it

On Sunday we went to the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall to see Nigel Kennedy perform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and a selection of pieces from his new album “The Four Elements”, as part of his current nationwide tour. Nigel cemented his reputation about 20 years ago with his performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto, which he also recorded for a very successful album. For his current tour he is accompanied by his his Orchestra of Life – an ensemble of classical, jazz and rock musicians and even four vocalists. Nigel was dressed very unconventionally for a classical concert. No monkey suit and dickey bow for him – to go along with his well known spikey haircut he was wearing bondage trousers and an Aston Villa replica shirt underneath his loose jacket. It was pretty clear that this wasn’t going to be a traditional classical concert. I wondered what the older members of the audience were going to make of it.

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Picture source: Wikipedia

The musicians were predominantly relatively young and a high proportion of them were rather attractive young women. An article I saw in the Guardian a few months ago referred to his ensemble as Nigel’s “mid life crisis orchestra”. They were probably not far off the mark!

The first half of the concert was devoted to The Four Elements – three of the four movements (air, earth and water – he missed out fire) and the underture, a piece written as an overture but played last. According to the publicity for the tour,

the Four Elements is a highly descriptive composition, inspired by the elements of earth, water, air and fire, which takes the listener on a journey of exhilaration, contemplation and celebration.

The pieces were a fusion of styles – classical, rock and jazz, and included vocal sections. I enjoyed the music, although had some reservations about the vocals. I’d listened to the album before the concert by Spotify and didn’t think some of the vocals worked, particularly on Earth. However, I have to say, that they came across much better live.

The second half, after the interval, was devoted to the Four Seasons , with a couple of Bach pieces interjected between Spring and Summer. It was a very different interpretation. It started off more or less in a traditional classical style (even if rock and jazz instruments were being played) but as the concert proceeded through the seasons more rock and jazz elements were introduced and Nigel switched from his acoustic violin to his electric one. He used effects pedals and in some sections his violin could have been mistaken for a rock guitar. There was input from the vocalists and even spoken sections of poems. It was very different to a traditional interpretation.

I enjoyed the concert. It was a  little self indulgent and I thought some aspects didn’t completely work, but there’s nothing wrong with trying out new approaches. Without experimentation music would ossify. Nigel clearly enjoyed himself and lapped up the adulation.

As for the audience – I think he won over the overwhelming majority. There was sincere, enthusiastic applause at the end with a large proportion of the audience on their feet – and he came back to play three more short pieces. I think just about everyone went away satisfied by an enjoyable, if flawed, performance. It was a good night. And Nigel certainly can play the violin.

Liverpool Philharmonic Hall

Last week we went to a concert by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in the Philharmonic Hall on Hope Street. I enjoyed the concert but the building itself was a highlight too. It’s an excellent example of an Art Deco interior, of which there aren’t that many in the North West of England. The architectural historians Pollard and Pevsner describe the auditorium as being “sensuously curved”. I think the phrase sums it up well.

The distinctive figures painted on the side walls are meant to represent “musical moods”.

The main bar was also a beautiful example of Art Deco style, but I wasn’t able to get a photograph – it was far too crowded with concert goers.