Review: City Of Light Explore Day @ Cardiff University School Of Music
The Philharmonia's meticulous festival of the music of Paris in the first half of the 20th-Century has been a great success in both Cardiff and London. With the celebrations wrapping up in Welsh capital with Debussy and Jolivet premiers, London still has Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphony to embark upon and there also trips to the continent. It's safe to say the orchestra has a hetic few months ahead of them.
It was a very busy day on the Cardiff University campus. For the City of Light Event Day was also coinciding with the uni's open day. A mass of potential students covered Cathays as I ventured down to the brown, block-like building that is their school of music. Sat in the concert hall at 11am for a little while, I realised this was a music workshop for the open day and nothing to do with City of Light (hearing Brahms' Gestillte Sehnsucht from his Zwei Gesange was pleasant though). Being directed next door to Aberdare House, I was livid at the fact I missed half a lecture on French composer, Erik Satie (pictured).
"Satie would only eat white food"
Darting into the Ede Room, I quickly settled and tried to take in Caroline Potter's talk on the composer. She spoke of his Musique d'ameublement (with funny musical snippets on trombone by Elan Higueras), which featured in the intermissions of a now-lost comedy by Max Jacob. Satie was furious with the audience as they sat back down and were quiet, when he had intended the music to have the parallel effect of creating conversation and merriment (like centuries before in a theatre). He deemed it a disaster, but his influence in many areas of music and some theatre, art, dance, etc is unprecedented. Impressionism, Theatre of the Absurd, Ambient Music, Muzak, Minimalism, Dadaism, Surrealism and more can trace their roots in this most eccentric and fascinating of French composers.
Satie would only eat white food, as he thought it would assist the purity of his compositions. He never spoke whilst eating, for fear of choking. He regulated his daily activity so that every day would consist of doing the same things at the very same time (waking up at 7:18am, having lunch at 12:11pm until 12:14pm, horse riding at 1:19pm to 2:35pm, and much more). Through his curious nature, he created some charming - and also bonkers - works for piano. His ballet, Parade (with set and costumes by Pablo Picasso) used an orchestra along with a typewriter, a pistol, sirens, milk bottles and foghorns (apparently Jean Coteau, who wrote the ballet story, added these to create a riot - and without Satie's consent).
"I am obsessed... now"
We all know and love Satie for his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes. These are certainly ultra-famous piano works. They have featured on TV shows, adverts and several contrasting films, including Chocolat, Revolver and the documentary, Man on Wire. Yet, the Vexations is very brief work, made remarkable by its discovery by American composer, John Cage. After a stormy relationship with the painter and acrobat, Susan Valadon, he is said to have written these notes (no more than forty) and asked the player to repeat them 840 times. If this is the true intention of the composer, a performance can last hours on end. I'm trying to learn the notes, in their mysterious and uneasy harmonies, but I don't intend to play it for that long. His Ogives (the slender, gothic windows in a church) could be mistaken for a work by Messiaen. It's a piece that remains severely disjointed, but totally fitting in its spiritual dimensions. He was so ahead of his time... The strangely-named Embryon Desseches (Dissected Embryos) is delightful and has an outrageous ending. Whilst his Je Te Veux never fails to put a smile on my face.
It's pretty obvious that I am obsessed with Satie now. I am so very grateful to Caroline for presenting this lecture. Satie is a musical curiosity. With my last great musical discovery being John Tavener, it's now the case of "from the sublime to the ridiculous", as I learn more about the exceptional specimen that was Mr Satie.
Next, was a voice masterclass with Jane Manning. Giving some insights into singing Messiaen's Harawi the night prior, here she listened to three singing students and dished up constructive feedback and great encouragement. Anna Moreton sang Massenet's Elegie with an elegance and sincerity. Charlotte Smallwood had a cold and made it through Nell, by Faure without much trouble (I would love to hear this when she is well!). Lastly, James Chitham-Mosley sang from Ravel's last set of songs, Don Quixote Dulcinea. The final song, Chanson a boire (Foin du batard, illustre Dame) is a very drunk one, not easy to sing and has moments of coarse vocalisation. James has a great voice, but he needs to work on the song more, for a further purity in his intoxication (for the singing, of course).
After cramming into Cathays Subway (simply too small) for lunch, I returned to hear Stephen Walsh's lecture, Stravinsky in Paris: A Love-Hate Relationship. Much has been said about the Russian composer's time in Paris. Whether his scandalous premier of The Rite of Spring, his unclear relationship with Coco Channel (Walsh declaring the film Coco and Igor as "utter rubbish"), the pleasantries and astounding charm and colour of his other ballet, Petrushka (which went down very well with audiences) or concerns with money, fidelity and arrogance.
I know a fair bit about his time in Paris, so it's all familiar to me. He did create some of his most accomplished work there. For me, the three ballets (The Rite of Spring, Petrushka and The Fire Bird) are his greatest works. His later explorations into neo-classical and surrealism prove that he perhaps ran out of steam and had to look elsewhere for inspiration for music that is heard not so much today. I did learn that the premier of his Threnody was grossly under-rehearsed, and led to fatal reviews - the reason for Stravinsky never conducting in Paris again.
"The previously snobby and close-minded perception of Parisian audiences"
Caroline Rae moved things on with her talk, Love and War: Jolivet and his Poemes intimes. Andre Jolivet feels very underrated as 20th-Century composers go. When his daughter, Christine Jolivet visited Cardiff back in December 2011, she spoke of how "Messiaen was on top of the Eiffel Tower, whilst her father was underground unnoticed". This rings true. Filled with much awkwardness, Rae is brimming with enthusiasm (she was taught piano by Messiaen's wife, Yvonne Loriod, but declined lessons from her teacher to learn the Ondes Martenot!). I can talk more about Jolivet when the UK premier of his Poemes intimes is two days later. His styles were also drastically different during different periods of his life. He wrote some hurtling and also pristine music. His Concerto per Onde Martenot e orchestra is something to behold.
In short, the underlying sense you discover is the previously snobby and close-minded perception of Parisian audiences. I'd like to think that things have changed now. But, I won't hold my breath.
Yet, I need little reason to rekindle my love of French music. Paris audiences were truly spoilt with some exemplary music. I have always adored Messiaen, Debussy and Ravel. But, Satie will keep me busy for some time now and Jolivet is also of much interest.
Now on to the premiers...
Rating: 4 stars
Click here to visit the Philarmonia's City of Light interactive website of Paris, featuring maps, essays, videos, photographs, concert listings and more.
Caroline Potter's latest book, Erik Satie: A Parisian Composer and His World (provisional title) will be published next year for the 150th anniversary of his birth, with Boydell & Brewer.
The Philharmonia Orchestra will perform Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie at the Royal Festival Hall (along with Debussy's Syrinx and La damoiselle elue) on Thursday 28th May 2015 and also at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris on Wednesday 28th May 2015.
Welsh National Opera will stage a brand new production of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande in their summer season, A Terrible Innocence, along with the UK premier of Peter Pan, by Richard Ayres and another revival of Mozart's The Magic Flute.
- Review: Natalie Raybould & Dominic Saunders - Messiaen's Harawi @ Cardiff Uni Concert Hall
- Review: Peter Hill & Benjamin Frith - Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen @ Cardiff Uni Concert Hall
- Review: Philharmonia Orchestra - Stravinsky's The Firebird @ SDH
Related Podcast: Cultural Recap of 2014 (Review of Turangalila-Symphonie)
Related Podcast: Cultural Recap of 2014 (Review of Turangalila-Symphonie)
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Photo Credits: Wikimedia