Making an Effort

To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also. – Igor Stravinsky

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17th July – First Night of the Proms

Orchestra: BBC Symphony Orchestra

Conductor: Sakari Oramo

Piano: Lars Vogt

Baritone: Christopher Maltman

Choirs: BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus

Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Nielsen: Maskarade – overture

Gary Carpenter – Dadaville BBC Comission world premiere

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K466

Sibelius Belshazzar’s Feast – suite  First performance at the Proms

Walton Belshazzar’s Feast

I had just been over at The Globe to watch Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for measure’ and quickly bought a sandwich to eat before I caught the tube to go and line up to prom in the Arena. I had initially thought of going to the top of RAH to lean on the bannister, but decided to try standing unassisted for a concert once again. I think I managed to spot the gentleman who informed me of the whole promoting process a couple of years ago, but unfortunately he was talking to some people and then quickly made his way back to the front. I was situated in the middle and over to the right a little. 

I will need to edit this later unfortunately as I returned from London to quickly get ready to fly back to Hong Kong and I am currently in Melbourne trying to write some thoughts before I forget and before I get too far behind in my blog posts! 

It’s great that as this is the year of both Nielsen and Sibelius anniversaries that the first Prom should have pieces by these composers. The concert started with Maskarade – a celebratory, jovial piece.
Then there was the commission by Carpenter. Unfortunately for me, some of these contemporary pieces I find difficult to digest. This had quite a lot of percussion and I find it difficult to enjoy due to an absence of a tune that I could grasp. It’s probably intellectual and stimulating for the composer and others but my favourite part were the fireworks at the end.

Lars Vogt was up next with Mozart’s piano concerto no. 20.

Here he is playing it last year with Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber orchestra
Sibelius’ Belshazzar’s feast was a contrast to that by Walton. This was an exotic rendition conjuring up the theme of Old Testament biblical times.

Walton’s Belshazzar’s feast was a rather stern and typically Waltonesque affair. The massed choir showed variation in their sound from reducing the sound by having only one line of singers singing to the whole choir producing a wall of sound. It was wonderful to experience but I did wonder what it was doing to my eardrums! The brass parts in this are great! At first you just think the orchestra is playing as normal as a unit. Then suddenly you realise that there is brass music coming from the right. Lo and behold, trumpets, trombones and tuba were situated to my right on the second balcony if this wasn’t enough, Walton had written this for an orchestra with two extra brass sections, so there was one opposite on the left side. For me, standing in the middle of the arena meant that I could experience live surround sound! Fantastic!


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15th July – St. Paul’s Co-educational College and Primary School Britain Tour Gala Concert 2015

Choir and Orchestra: St. Paul’s Co-educational College Primary School Concert Choir and Orchestra

String quartet: SPCC String Quartet

Conductors: Katherine Cheung, Jason Ho, Yvonne Lui, Alice Chung

Piano: Warren Lee

Venue: St. John’s Smith Square, London

On 15th July, I headed down to London to meet up with friends and take in some more of the culture London has to offer. First on the bill was a concert that I had been invited to by my friend, Warren Lee who is Music Director of St. Paul’s. Funnily enough, we had managed to meet in my hometown of Chester the week before, where the choir had been rehearsing in the town hall to prepare for the Eisteddfod competition in Llangollen.

St John’s Smith Square, London

This was the final concert of their British tour. Admittedly, my expectations were not that high – being a teacher has exposed me to primary school and middle school concerts. However, the orchestra assembled quickly on stage, as did the choir. Then there were two student MCs who introduced the concert  – this pattern was repeated throughout the concert to give time for changes on stage and brief introductions to the pieces. This was a good use of time, helped to represent the school and its students well and gave opportunity for a little humour.

As soon as the choir opened their mouths to sing, I was impressed. They sang with fervour, some of them were swaying to the music and their facial expressions showing eagerness. These were students who had obviously been taught to open their mouths to sing, and they did so with confidence, projecting their voices well. Some songs were sung in Chinese and some in English but all were sung with enthusiasm. Having now experienced their performance, it wasn’t surprising that this choir won their category in Llangollen.

Programme - Part 1

Programme – Part 1

Programme - Part 2

Programme – Part 2

The orchestra were equally as impressive. They sat quietly poised as they waited to begin. For a group of approximately 10-12 year olds, the sound produced was cohesive. The SPCC string quartet are secondary school students who I presume must have spent hours practising together to sound so good. As they played, I noted their eye contact as they remained connected through their pieces. They seemed to be great role models for the members of the orchestra.

The end of the concert finished on a high with Warren Lee performing Ode to the Yellow River with the orchestra and a world premiere by Hong Kong composer, Steve Ho with the choir and orchestra. It was great to see such young students perform with an instrumental soloist – I don’t know how many orchestras of students this young ever get this type of opportunity! As if this wasn’t enough, the audience was treated to another piece by Steve Ho called ‘Kung Fu Rhapsody’ performed by Warren Lee and the SPCC quartet. This was definitely a fun and energetic way to finish the concert.

SPCCPS Orchestra

SPCCPS Orchestra

Readers of this may think that I am being quite biased, which is true. However, I doubt that there is a high probability that I would walk away from many concerts performed mostly by primary school students that warrants me to think, “When can I see them perform again?”

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11th July – Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco at Buxton Festival

Buxton Opera House

Buxton Opera House

It was a lovely day to travel over to Buxton to see an opera which is part of the Buxton Festival. I arrived and made my way to the hotel, dropped my bag off and went to explore this small town. It was busy by the pavilion with crowds gathered and people drinking beer in the gardens. As I was looking around shops, I realised they were quite empty, I wandered to the main street and discovered that crowds were gathered along the route of the Buxton carnival parade! After the bagpipers and brass band passed by I quickly lost interest.

Bagpipers in the carnival parade

Bagpipers in the carnival parade

In the Pavilion was a market featuring locally made goods. The Pavilion restaurant was a convenient place to book a table for a pre-opera meal – fast service and good food.

Buxton Pavilion

Buxton Pavilion

I went to the Opera House to buy a ticket for the pre-concert talk where the assistant director, Alice Knight was  interviewing the director, Elijah Moshinsky and designer Russell Craig. They talked a little about the story and hinted at the costumes.  They also said that they really enjoyed being involved in putting on an opera at Buxton due to the smaller venue, whereas you may lose the intimacy in a larger setting.

Orchestra: Northern Chamber Orchestra

Conductor: Stuart Stratford

Director: Elijah Moshinsky

Venue: Buxton Opera House, Buxton

The overture started with Giovanna (dressed simply in a pinafore and shirt) on stage in the corner between two reflective surfaces. As the music played fiercely, her acting showed her internal anguish showing her feelings as someone who wants to fight for her country. The overture contains some gentler phrases where she is shown to be a simple village girl. She ends up praying and then falling asleep where she prays. The villagers and king entered the scene – the king in royal blue and the male villagers/soldiers dressed in a mix of World War I uniform and medieval armour and the female villagers stood above the two intersecting reflective pieces of scenery.

The scene where Giacomo (Giovanna’s father), Giovanna and Carlo (the king) are at the oak tree was a sight to behold. On stage were evil spirits dressed in red wearing masks and gyrating erotically as they sang their barrel song. This instilled a bit of humour into this rather tragic opera. The angels appeared as nuns wearing large cornettes. They had quite an ominous presence as they sang their warning of ‘earthly love’. I rather viewed them as the ‘nuns of doom’! The upper level was used effectively later on as the demons and angels appeared there separately later on.

There were strong vocal performances from the lead vocalists, supported well by a small chorus. The duets and trio were most enjoyable and there were some stellar solo performances – notably from David Cecconi who played Giacomo. The orchestra was excellent and I particularly enjoyed the oboe and cello grieving duet near the end which continued during the singing as Giovanna  died.

Funnily enough, a lady in the row in front of me turned to talk to me during the interval. She hadn’t read the programme but had heard that Giovanna doesn’t die at the stake in this version which she was surprised at. (She is rescued from the stake by her father and rushes to battle – only to die on the battlefield although victory for France is won!) I was quite glad I did my research – it definitely made a difference in the understanding of the story, and there were side titles to follow during the opera.

The staff at Buxton Opera House were helpful and friendly- assisting me and answering my questions. After the performance, I stood awkwardly at the artist’s entrance, as orchestral musicians and opera singers walked past. Finally, Kate Ladner (soprano who played Giovanna) appeared, so I introduced myself to her, as I work with her brother in Hong Kong. I think she was surprised and said, ‘So you’re my brother’s representative!’ She was grateful I had made the effort to attend her performance.

The following day, as I was heading home, I overheard two people on the train talking about the previous night’s opera performance. I finally realised that the man was the director. So, I was quickly able to express that I had enjoyed the performance immensely as we disembarked the train to make our connections. Well, it was a lovely experience and I hadn’t realised that the festival has opera, music and literary parts to it. So I will be watching out to see what is on at the festival next year!

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Pre- Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco

Not being a huge fan of opera, I hesitate to buy tickets for them. I watched a few on TV in my teenage years, and found then engaging but I had the advantage of being able to pop to and from the kitchen for snacks and having subtitles so that I could understand the plot and what they were singing. I recently attended a performance of Das Rheingold by Hong Kong Philharmonic and thoroughly enjoyed it. Well, I could see the orchestra and there were surtitles and helpful guides in the concert programme booklet!

This Saturday, I will go to Buxton, England to the Buxton Festival and see a colleague’s sister perform the title role in Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco. So, I had better figure out what it’s all about! It’s pretty helpful to watch a recorded production and have the libretto with English translation available in order to make out the story. Although I still won’t be able to understand what they’re singing, at least I’ll know what’s going on in each act!

Giovanna d’Arco

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Librettist – Temistode Solera – after Schiller’s drama ‘Die Jungfrau von Orleans’

This opera is Verdi’s 7th and it premiered on 15th February, 1845 at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. It is an opera in a prologue and three acts.



Scene 1 :French village of Dom Remy Carlo, the future king, describes his vision to the officers and villagers. He had a vision that the Virgin Mary tells him to surrender to the invading English army. He is to lay his weapons down at the base of a giant oak tree. He expresses his frustrations of being a ruler.

Scene 2: A forest at a giant oak tree, Giacomo prays for the safety of his daughter. Giovanna is at a nearby shrine and prays to be chosen to lead the French. Carlo arrives to lay his weapons at the tree. Giovanna has dreams where evil spirits question what she is doing and then angels say that her requests have been heard and prophecy her victory but warn her of earthly affections. She cries out that she is ready to lead the French and Carlo overhears her. Giovanna collects a helmet and sword. Giacomo weeps as he thinks his daughter has given her soul to the devil out of devotion to the future king.

Act 1

Scene 1: Near Reims The commander of the English army tries to convince his soldiers that their imminent surrender to the French is not due to forces of evil. Giacomo, convinced of his daughter’s influence of the devil offers her to them.

Scene 2 – French court at Reims Giovanna questions her own lingering presence at Reims as she has surely done enough in battle. She longs for her simple life back at home. Carlo confesses his love for Giovanna. She finally admits her love for him but withdraws from him due to the warnings against earthly love from the angels. Soldiers enter and hand her the banner to go with Carlo when he makes his entrance to the coronation ceremony. Evil spirits come and taunt Giovanna.

Act 2

The Cathedral Square Carlo is crowned King of France. Giacomo comes to disown his daughter and pray to God heartbroken but he feels this is what he must do. He denounces his daughter, Carlo tries to defend her but Giacomo convinces the villagers of the devilish influence. Carlo refuses to listen and asks Giovanna to defend herself but she is silent. She surrenders to her father who will take her to the pyre.

Act 3

At English camp (imprisoned) Giovanna is captured by the English. She cries out to God, admitting she loved the king for a moment but her heart is devoted to God. Giacomo realises his mistake and helps her escape. She goes to the battlefield with Giacomo’s sword where she leads the French to victory.

Giacomo pleads with the king for his own punishment and forgiveness, which Carlo grants. The king learns of the french victory and Giovanna’s death. As her body is carried in Giovanna revives. Giacomo reclaims his daughter and the king professes his love. Giovanna asks to take the standard to heaven. She dies as her father and the king grieve. Angels sing of salvation and victory whereas the evil spirits sing of their torment as Giovanna ascends to heaven.

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2nd July, 2015 White Nights Concert – RLPO, Vasily Petrenko, Alexandru Tomescu

Orchestra: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Conductor: Vasily Petrenko

Violin: Alexandru Tomescu

Venue: Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Clear blue summer sky over Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool - with the obligatory coach bringing concertgoers outside.

Clear blue summer sky over Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool – with the obligatory coach bringing concertgoers outside.

Tchaikovsky  –  Excerpts from Swan Lake (Scene, Dance of the Swans, Neopolitan Dance, Mazurka)

Glazunov  –  Violin Concerto

Rachmaninov  –  Symphony No.1

This concert is the first concert that I am attending in the UK this summer. I always look out for the White Nights concert in RLPO’s ‘Summer Pops’ series, and quickly shoot off an email to ask my best friend, Juliet, if she can attend (and arrange tickets!) too. RLPO concerts are also often the first reason Ju and I meet up in the summer! It was also lovely to find that friends, Robin and Nick were seated right behind us, making them very easy to find!

The concert started with excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s well known ballet ‘Swan Lake’ – beautifully played and immediately my mind conjured pictures of ballerinas in white tutus. For the start of ‘Dance of the Swans’, as part of the audience, it was hard to tell if Petrenko was actually conducting. I wondered if he was conducting solely with facial expressions or maybe just his eyebrows! His motions were minimal during this movement to set and keep the quiet delicate tone. I was pleasantly surprised to realise that the ‘Neopolitan Dance’ had a cornet solo which Brendan Ball played. Fantastic! The lively ‘Mazurka’ had a wonderful celebratory sound to finish this first part of the concert.

The Glazunov violin concerto was a fabulous performance with Tomescu as violinist. As in my previous post, I listened out for the 2nd movement inserted into the first. Then there was Tomescu’s mesmerising cadenza. I felt quite entranced by the intensity of his playing, that as the basses entered at the end of the cadenza, they seemed to bring me back to reality – a sure sign for me that there is something special about the performance and artist. Tomescu followed the concerto with an encore by Romanian composer, Enescu.

At the interval, we went out to stretch our legs and I managed to say a quick ‘Hello!’ to Andrew Cornall (RLPO Artistic Consultant) who I had last spoken to at the RLPO concert in Shenzhen,China in November. It seems to me like the artistic planning team do such a great job at booking artists and figuring out the season’s repertoire that I love checking out their website throughout the year just to see what’s on. I finally decided to get an ice cream and as we were just about to dig in, there was the 5 minute call to go back to our seats. Ju saw the panic on my face, but then told me that we were allowed to eat it in the hall. I really wasn’t convinced and expected to be pounced on at any moment, but lo and behold, Ju was right! I’m obviously too used to Hong Kong venues with their ‘no eating’ rules!

Rachmaninov Symphony no. 1 was a pleasure to listen to with its Dies Irae theme. I always seem to be amazed at what I notice when I hear RLPO play. I truly feel like I hear more of the music by being able to notice each instrument’s emphasis throughout the piece. I am guessing that this is attributed to the balance the players and conductor work at achieving. The final movement (Allegro con fuoco) starts with a vibrant brass march before it continues with strings at quite a gallop interspersed with romantic swells. I love how the music builds in pace and intensity and then there’s the hit of the gong that seems to tell the music to just calm down! The ending was at a calmer pace but still with a good amount of force. When Petrenko turned around, he looked quite exhausted – he’d obviously put as much energy into the performance as the orchestra. Rarely do i get to see an orchestral encore, but I have heard that RLPO have been doing so. It was distinctly recognisable as another Rachmaninov piece – I wasn’t sure what it was but as it continued, I was convinced I knew it and managed to work out that it was a dance from ‘Aleko’. As we exited, Robin said the encores would be displayed on the screen outside the concert hall and I found out that I was right  – ‘Men’s dance from Aleko’. I think I made one of the ushers smile as I made my fist pump!

I had a little gift of Japanese snacks for Brendan and Mrs Ball, so we waited in the foyer and Mrs Ball appeared. So we exited and found Brendan outside with his bike and stopped for a little chat and photo before Ju and I briskly walked to catch our train home.

Post concert photo with Brendan Ball and Mrs Ball.

Post concert photo with Brendan Ball and Mrs Ball.