Pianist Angela Hewitt talks about her forthcoming recitals

There are two chances to catch Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt at Southbank Centre. Tomorrow’s International Piano Series recital includes a Bach Partita, Beethoven’s Eroica Variations and Brahms’ Handel Variations.  Angela writes:

“My programme pairs two suites of the Baroque period with two of the greatest masterpieces ever written in variation form. It is well known that Beethoven played a lot of Bach as a boy, but perhaps less so that Brahms was greatly attracted to the music of many Baroque composers (including Couperin whose keyboard works he edited in the 1880s). I always wanted to pair a Handel Suite with the mighty Brahms/Handel Variations to show that the connection between the two does not end with the theme. Even Brahms can benefit from a ‘dusting off’ and a fresh look at the score.”

Click here to book.

Then on Monday 4 April she performs concertos by Bach and Mozart with Britten Sinfonia. In this podcast, she talks to Fiona Talkington about how her playing of Bach and Mozart is infused with song and dance, and discusses directing from the piano.

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Emerson String Quartet prepare for premiere of Thomas Ades’ The Four Quarters

Bringing a new piece of music to life is a collaborative, communicative process. Composers invariably meet with the musicians premiering their work in order to discuss issues arising with the score and troubleshoot problems. For The Four Quarters, the new string quartet by Thomas Adès, that moment was in late January, when Adès stopped over to see the Emerson String Quartet in New York, en route from Miami to London. ‘I think we absorbed a sense of what the piece was about, as is often the case when we work together with a composer for the first time,’ says Eugene Drucker, violinist in the Emerson Quartet, of the session. ‘Tom was very nice and wasn’t expecting an absolutely polished performance, since it was still seven weeks until the premiere.’

Instead, the quartet had the opportunity to further realise the composer’s musical vision for The Four Quarters, which was commissioned by the Carnegie Hall, New York. ‘It has been a challenge to learn in certain ways,’ says Drucker. ‘The piece’s complexity comes from the rhythm, the way the measures are arranged. It’s sort of a new language we’ve been learning.’ The quartet discussed technical aspects of the work with Adès. For example, in the last movement, “The Twenty-fifth Hour”, the violins are required to alternate quickly between ‘artificial harmonics and normal notes’. Adès was ‘looking for a certain effect’ with this compositional device, says Drucker, and ‘it became clear that he was imagining a kind of yodelling effect, so I changed the way I was playing it.’

The meeting was also a chance for Thomas Adès to discuss the new work’s themes with the quartet, though Drucker suggests that the piece’s loose programmatic aspect could be more for the listeners than the musicians. ‘I don’t think it is something Tom wants to pin down exactly,’ he says. ‘The title refers to four times of day, but I’m not sure how much importance he wants us as performers to attach to the movement titles. Perhaps he’d like the audience to think of those titles while listening to the piece.’ Regardless of the technical challenges or the thematic aspects of the work, Drucker says that what has struck him most about The Four Quarters is the way ‘the beauty of its textures and the sense of overarching shape comes across in each of the four movements.’

The process of discovery Drucker describes is part of what appeals to the Emerson String Quartet about performing new music. ‘We play one or two contemporary works a year, and sometimes we carry over a work from the previous season, as we’ll do with Tom’s piece,’ says Drucker, although the ‘main thrust of our activity is with the standard repertoire.’ The two pieces framing The Four Quarters in this concert are as familiar to the Emerson Quartet as the Adès is new. The quartet have won Grammy awards for recordings of both the complete Mendelssohn (2005) and Beethoven (1997) quartets. Eugene Drucker describes the third Op.44 Mendelssohn quartet as a pleasure to play even though it’s demanding technically’, while Beethoven’s Op.131 is ‘one of the great works of the entire string quartet literature’.

It is unusual for a quartet to frequently perform new music without making it a speciality, but the Emersons have always questioned long-held traditions, as can be seen in their name, taken from a poet-philosopher rather than a composer or instrumentalist. A well-known Emerson String Quartet innovation is their on-stage set up. The three upper strings stand while cellist David Finckel’s chair sits on a podium. The idea to break away from the conventional seating plan arose during the quartet’s 25th anniversary season in 2001, as Eugene Drucker explains: ‘We were performing six Haydn quartets at the Alice Tully Hall in the Lincoln Center, New York, and we were concerned that the programme would not have sonic impact enough to engage the audience’s attention.’ They hit on the idea of standing and found that ‘there’s something about getting our instruments farther from the floor of the stage that makes the sound project further.’

 Tim Woodall © 2011

The Emerson String Quartet performs Thomas Ades’ The Four Quarters alongside works by Mendelssohn and Beethoven on Thursday 7 April. Click here for full details and to book.

Ether 2011: Space capsule lands at Southbank Centre

On 31 March & 1 April, Will Gregory’s Piccard in Space crash-lands at Southbank Centre as part of Ether 2011. Gregory’s (of Goldfrapp) debut opera is a classic adventure about the real-life physicist Auguste Piccard and his mission to prove Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

In 1931, he broke aviation records by reaching 51,775 feet (15,781m) above the earth in a tiny airtight capsule. Against all odds, Piccard survived being roasted by the sun and crashing into the Alps. In 1932, he went up again, reaching 53,152 feet (16,200m).

Clearly not a blackboard and chalk type of scientist, Piccard became world front-page news and the inspiration for Hergé’s cartoon character Professor Calculus in The Adventures of Tintin series.

Auguste Piccard

To celebrate BBC Concert Orchestra and Will Gregory’s collaboration, we have brought the actual 1932 capsule to Royal Festival Hall. Landing on site today, the capsule will be on display in the foyer until 11 April.

Capsule arriving at Southbank Centre

Capsule en route to Royal Festival Hall

The capsule as part of Ether 2011

See Will Gregory’s Piccard in Space at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 31 March & 1 April as part of Ether 2011. Get tickets here.

Massive Messiah: your chance to sing with The Sixteen

Harry ChristophersWe are searching for 750 singers from around the country (or beyond!) to join conductor Harry Christophers and The Sixteen in a giant performance of Handel’s Messiah on Saturday 14 May. You will need to know the music in advance, but there’s the option of taking part in rehearsals in London ahead of the performance date. Click here to find out more.

You can also simply buy a ticket for the performance and listen, or if you’d like to stand up and sing just the famous ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus, buy a ticket and then come to a free workshop on the day. Click here to book.

‘Please join us and help Japan’: Sapporo Symphony Orchestra concert in aid of Japan earthquake and tsunami victims

Sapporo Symphony Orchestra have announced that their Royal Festival Hall concert on Monday 23 May will be in aid of victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The orchestra’s players and tour management will not take any payment for the performance, and all ticket proceeds will be shared between the Japanese Red Cross Society and Japan Society Tohoku Earthquake Relief Fund.

They perform a beautiful programme: Takmitsu’s How slow the wind, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5, under conductor Tadaaki Otaka.

‘It was an unforeseen and terrible disaster, from which all Japanese people are working extremely hard to recover. We, the musicians, wish to turn our London appearance into a benefit concert to support the vital relief efforts in our country. Please join us and help Japan! Thank you.’ (Tadaaki Otaka)

Click here to book.

Ether 2011: Young Xenarchitects – Painting with Sound

Ether 2011 sees a focus on one of the 20th century’s most important composers, Iannis Xenakis with performances and interactive workshops . Here composer Aleks Kolkowski tells us about his experiences with the Ether project ‘Young Xenarchitects’ at Southbank Centre.

Iannis Xenakis‘ dual career as architect and composer is beautifully illustrated by his 1953 masterpiece Metasastis, whose graphic blueprint for the final conventionally notated musical score became the basis for the design of the Philips Pavilion in Brussels, 1958. A desire to draw sounds in the draftsman-like manner of an architect led Xenakis in 1977 to devise UPIC(Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu), a system where sounds were created, drawn and arranged on a computer screen using an electromagnetic pencil. One of the first pieces that Xenakis composed through it is Mycenae Alpha (1978).

UPIC proved to be so popular internationally as a unique music-composing and educational tool for non-musicians, artists, programmers and children alike, that a second machine had to be built at great expense so that Xenakis could continue to work with it.

Today’s modern audio painting software using graphic tablets and touch screens all descend from UPIC, but the origins of sound painting goes back much further than Xenakis, to the early methods of visualising sound through the chladni platesphonautograms and harmonographs of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the early twentieth century, the development of sound-on-film with soundtracks recorded directly onto celluloid led to many artists, includingOskar Fischinger in Germany and Evgeny Sholpo in Russia to experiment with optical sound by drawing patterns onto film, played back via photo-electric cells. In the 1950s, some twenty years before Xenakis and UPIC, the pioneering British electronic music composer Daphne Oram created theOramics Machine, a highly sophisticated analogue device enabling her to draw the parameters of sounds and paint her own waveforms.

Informed and inspired by this fascinating historical background to the art of sound painting, the Young Xenarchitects have taken up the challenge of composing graphically through HighCsoftware developed by Thomas Baudel that is closely modeled on the original UPIC system. Using HighC, they can paint sounds with the cursor, create waveforms and patterns, modify dynamics, determine pitch scales and rhythms and even import their own recordings to be manipulated or painted within the program.

'Using HighC, they can paint sounds with the cursor, create waveforms and patterns'

Some have chosen to use HighC as a sketch-board to make blueprints for conventional scores for instrumental ensemble; others will create electro-acoustic works combined with sound recordings and together with live instruments.

The possibilities are endless and sound painting is a lot of fun, but creating a coherent musical work in such an unorthodox manner, with relatively little time to get used to some peculiar techniques, is no easy task. Nevertheless, the speed in which the Young Xenarchitects have got to grips with the program and their enthusiasm for composing music is staggering. I can’t wait to hear the final pieces.

Aleks Kolkowski, March 2011

A free version of HighC is available to download here.

See Young Xenarchitects at Southbank Centre as part of Ether 2011 for FREE on 1 April 2011. More info here.

Explore more of Iannis Xenakis’ work at London Sinfonietta’s concert Xenakis – Architect of Sound at Southbank Centre as part of Ether 2011 on 2 April 2011. Get tickets here.

Ether 2011: Win Exclusive Promo of Micachu & The Shapes and London Sinfonietta

As part of Ether 2011, Micachu & The Shapes and Southbank Centre Resident Orchestra London Sinfonietta are teaming up once more for a night of 21st-century experimentalism. To celebrate another of Ether’s ground-breaking collaborations, we have 10 exclusive promo copies of Micachu & The Shapes and London Sinfonietta’s new release Chopped & Screwed to give away.

Micachu & The Shapes and London Sinfonietta - Chopped & Screwed

Discussing the project, Micachu, aka Mica Levi, said: ‘Our own instruments sound a bit percussive, a bit like samples, a bit different. When I write songs on a guitar I find my hands falling into the same bar chords all the time, but if you have something new in front of you there are no rules. No one else has ever played one before so you can approach music differently just make it up as you go along. Doing a project with the London Sinfonietta is an amazing opportunity for us.’

To enter, simply email competitions@southbankcentre.co.uk by 20 March with ‘Chopped & Screwed’ in the subject line. Winners will be chosen at random. Please include your name, address and contact number.

See Micachu & The Shapes and London Sinfonietta playing live at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of Ether 2011 on 5 April. Get tickets here.