Christmas is simultaneously an easy and difficult time to persuade people to come out to a concert (actually, Christmas is simultaneously an easy and difficult time, full stop). People are gathering together and making merry and whatnot, and ‘whatnot’ does often comprise music, but the demand is often for everything to be overwhelmingly festive. Cue songs you’ve heard a million times or more, and don’t wish to necessarily pay money to ever hear again.
Our Concerts by Candlelight series is festive, but based on the opinion that music is for life, not just for Christmas. Their growing popularity is proof that there are actually people out there who want to come to a warm, inviting, even glowing concert around Christmas-time, but one at which they might feel something different, hear something new, claim back an evening to pause and reflect amongst all the tinsel and tat.
This year’s programme is, as often, a mixture of the old and new, the familiar and the not-so. Have a read of our easy-to-digest guide of what’s on offer below and perhaps think about coming along for yourself. An evening of shimmering musical and ocular radiance awaits…
Kilar – Orawa
Orawa is one of those pieces that you hear live and think… ‘aaaahhh’. It fits together in your ears like a jigsaw, in a way that it doesn’t necessarily do when listening to a recording. I’m not sure how to explain it any better than that. In the concert programme, we’ve attempted to condense a description of Kilar’s style into two words – ‘widescreen cinematic’ – and this is one of the pieces where that really makes sense. You can physically see the music opening out in front of you as it opens with a small fragment played by a couple of instruments buried within the group then, whilst you’re trying to find them, more join in, then a couple more, then before you know it the whole lot are playing that exhilarating jagged little cluster of notes as if they’ve reached the top of the mountains and the whole glorious view has just opened out in front of them…
…which might sound a little OTT if the piece was not in fact inspired by mountains or, more specifically, the Tatra range in Southern Poland and the music of the highlanders who lived in them.
Dobrinka Tabakova – Concerto for Cello and Strings
It’s easy to see why Dobrinka Tabakova is an SE favourite when you hear her writing for strings. She is, amazingly, not a string player herself (although she has said she always wanted to learn, although now probably only because she gets asked so many times which one she plays) – and yet she knows how to use their textures and capabilities to create these rich, layered, complex tapestries which have quite an astounding effect on the soul, if you give them the gift of time and space to listen in.
In this final movement, titled Radiant (and isn’t that lovely?), the thread of the cello line – jagged, frenetic and exuberant – weaves in and out of thick accompanying ropes of sound, alternately exposed on its solo journey which scuttles all over the cello, then is caught beneath the tide, only to emerge triumphant again. The weighty chord at the end is so satisfying, and one of those moments where Tabakova seems to tap into almost a medieval or Renaissance sense of ending. Radiant indeed.
Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending
It’s tempting to say that this piece needs no introduction; but is that true? It may be one of the most well-known unknown pieces – the one you know when you hear it, but couldn’t say what it was or who it was by. It’s become part of the general sound of life, like Mozart’s Eine Kleine, Beethoven’s Fifth. People have heard it in adverts, films, documentaries, usually to convey some sense of lovely Englishness, but also sometimes to reverentially mark a death (see, for example, its rather unexpected use in Hayley Cropper’s death scene in Coronation Street in 2014).
It’s understandable given that it is hauntingly, sensitively, meltingly, quietly sublime. As the title suggests, the solo violin line is actually intended to represent the upwards soaring of a songbird – its ‘chirrup, whistle, slur and shake’, if we’re to follow the poem it was inspired by, which Vaughan Williams does with a near perfect mimicry. But it is more than easy to hear how it could make people think of the final upwards journey of the soul to a forgiving and golden heaven (played well, of course; it is a notoriously difficult solo to capture, so it’s good we have the stunning musicianship of Jonathan Morton on this. No pressure, Jon).
There are two versions of this piece, the first for violin and piano in 1914, and the second – the one that has endured – for violin and orchestra, in 1920. The fact that its two publication dates flanked one of the most horrific periods of warfare, death and loss that Britain had known seems to imbue the subject – the peaceful, innocent flights and fillips of a free and innocent creature – with an even weightier significance. Its easy to see how for some, it captures the calming passivity of the English countryside or, as with the poppy, nature itself – the soft and healing side of it which was so cruelly absent during those years.
Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Vaughan Williams was fascinated and continually inspired by the sound of Renaissance England – hence this fantasy on a short melody by Thomas Tallis, the court composer from Henry VIII through to Elizabeth I, celebrated as one of the most important composers in musical history.
Tallis’ original theme was, really, about the words (he was a devout Reformer and of course at that time, it was often all about religion, including music) – it was a short melody to accompany part of one of nine psalms he set to music for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Whilst Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia does away with those words, it does somehow convey something spiritual, if not religious, in the weight of its grand, sweeping flanks of sound.
Beside the sheer heft and weight of the strings moving together, there is also the shifts between various harmonic modes (the part which makes it sound so Henry VIII – here’s some fascinating reading for another time if you’re not familiar). The short fragment that the piece is built around, that creeping, sinister couple of notes, bears an omniscient sense of knowing and rightness in both its medieval-ness but also its simplicity – down, up, down, up, returning home. It’s either that, or we have collectively watched way too many epic historical dramas.
This is big music, for double string orchestra, and our final piece. If anything can sweep you out into the cold winter’s night with a warm and glowing core, it is this.
Ascent: Concerts by Candlelight takes place from Monday 5 to Saturday 10 December 2016, calling at Perth (Mon 5), Edinburgh (Tue 6), Glasgow (Wed 7), Aberdeen (Thu 8), Dundee (Fri 9) and Inverness (Sat 10).