Brian Wright on ‘the King Kong of requiems’


Brian Wright conducts Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts on Monday 30 November at the Royal Albert Hall.

There is no more thrilling place to be, says conductor Brian Wright, than standing in the middle of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts. So he’s in luck: on Monday 30 November, he and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will perform the piece at the Royal Albert Hall – a good place for it, according to Wright.

That’s because Grande Messe des Morts, written in 1837, is the King Kong of requiems. Berlioz, who intended it to memorialise the victims of the French revolution in July 1830, was never stingy with decibel levels. But in this work, he excelled himself, including, in addition to his enormous orchestra and gargantuan choir, four brass bands. Positioned around the other performers, these take turns to bludgeon the audience into submission; no wonder it’s rather a trial to put this piece on. ‘Trying to get all that lot together, as conductor, you’ve got to be very clear in what you’re doing and just keep the most enormously cool head.’ Then, of course, there’s the expense: ’I remember once doing it in the Albert Hall, when amazingly, we managed to get an audience of 3,000 in. I think we made £100 profit in the end.’

So why do performers keep coming back to it? Exactly because of its eccentricity. ‘In the middle of the piece especially, Berlioz lets his imagination go absolutely wild in a totally theatrical way,’ says Wright. ‘In one place there is this unbelievably bare sound of three flutes, right at the top of the flute range, with no harmony underneath, but then you suddenly have the sound of four bass trombones coming in from the brass. It’s haunting.’

As he points out, this is the sort of contemporary effect you’d associate with a mid twentieth-century composer rather than someone at the beginning of the nineteenth century. And it’s certainly not what you’d call reverential church music. But for all its originality, this piece didn’t spring from nowhere: ‘During the revolution, there were great open air celebrations with brass bands in four corners of a square, who would go out into the population and teach thousands of people the latest revolutionary tunes.’ What Berlioz essentially did, Wright explains, was to take this practice and put it in a religious context. ‘It’s a bit like somebody today taking the latest ideas from pop music and putting them into a classical context,’ Wright explains.

To deafening effect, some might say. But on this, Wright has his own opinion: ‘The interesting thing about this piece is that it’s not just about those enormous moments which almost have the feeling of growing out of the French Revolution. There are also these incredible moments of intimacy, for example in the Sanctus where the solo tenor comes in with this very ethereal line.’

But the diabolical shrieks also have their place, not least of all in the Lacrimosa: ‘It’s frankly a dance of death. The basic speed is a waltz, but it’s a manic waltz over the edge into the abyss. It’s the beckoning of death, Hell and all the rest of it,’ Wright says with relish. ‘And Berlioz really knew how to conjure that up.’

Written by Hannah Nepil

Brian Wright conducts Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts on Monday 30 November 2015 at the Royal Albert Hall.

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José Serebrier and the Golden Age


© Columbia Artists Management Inc.

Hollywood comes to the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 4 November when the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performs some of the greatest film scores from the Golden Age of the movies, under the inspired direction of legendary conductor José Serebrier.

It promises to be a match made in tinseltown: the RPO, an orchestra with recording credits including The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Red Shoes, and Serebrier who, in addition to being an acclaimed, multi-Grammy Award-winning conductor famed for his interpretations of Glazunov, has composed for film as well as for one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He is, therefore, just the man to create more than a little movie magic on this special night.

“My first film score was for The Star-Wagon starring Dustin Hoffman,” he tells me from his home in New York. “We were neighbours and it was just wonderful writing for this young man who, soon after, would become such a big star in his first major film, The Graduate.”

So, solid-gold Hollywood credentials established, what is it about film music that attracts this energetic (he seems far younger than his 76 years) but, otherwise, serious and hugely respected classical conductor?

“The power of the music, pure and simple,” says Serebrier. “Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the power of music to bring a film alive. The best film music has this fantastic ability to create moods and enhance the visual experience.”

It’s a quality that wasn’t lost on some of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, including one of Serebrier’s heroes: Dmitri Shostakovich. Remarkably, he composed almost 40 scores, more than most established film composers manage in a lifetime. Needless to say, Serebrier has recorded many of them.

However, much as he loves the film music of Shostakovich, it is that other Russian composer, Prokofiev, whose film music intrigues him – and one score above all.

“It’s his music for the film Alexander Nevsky,” he says. “The film was directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Unlike today, when composers are given a couple of weeks to compose the score after the film has been shot and edited, Prokofiev and Eisenstein worked on the movie and the music simultaneously – frame by frame, bar by bar. It was unique, and the care and craftsmanship shows. It’s what I mean when I say music brings a film alive.”

Fortunately, audiences will experience exactly that when the conductor directs the RPO in their concert dedicated to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Ben-Hur, Taxi Driver, North by Northwest, Gone With The Wind, Psycho… Movie titles etched in our collective memory – but what do we remember next? The music, of course.

“The mark of a good film score is one that can stand on its own, without the film,” says Serebrier. “The music to these great films absolutely does.”

Among the roll call of great movie composers whose music he and the RPO will be performing is Erich Korngold. According to the conductor, Korngold’s work is proof that great film music, far from being some sort of poor relation of classical music, is a genre in its own right, deserving of equal respect.

“Film music is not a cousin of classical music,” he says. “It is unrelated and, yes, it is functional, there to enhance the film. But, as the music we will perform in the Royal Albert Hall will show, the best scores can stand on their own and stir the emotions as only the greatest music can.”

Written by John Evans

José Serebrier conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in The Golden Age of Hollywood on Wednesday 4 November at the Royal Albert Hall.

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Composer Robert Hartshorne talks Thomas & Friends™

©2015 Gullane (Thomas) Limited. ©2015 HIT Entertainment Limited.

©2015 Gullane (Thomas) Limited. ©2015 HIT Entertainment Limited.

Barely five minutes in, we’re already onto political correctness in Thomas the Tank Engine. ‘In the American version, you can’t have the ‘Fat Controller’ – he’s called Sir Topham Hatt over there,’ says composer Robert Hartshorne. ‘I think it’s the reference to the fatness that they don’t like. In Britain we’re a little less sensitive than that. We can take it.’

I consider admitting that I don’t remember the Fat Controller. It’s been far too long since I watched Thomas the Tank Engine, and even then I only did it to impress my ‘boyfriend’ at nursery school. For Hartshorne, however, Thomas the Tank Engine is a specialist subject. He is the man behind the music of the television series. And he can also count himself responsible for Thomas & Friends™: Sodor’s Legend of Lost Treasure, the latest film inspired by the grinning steam locomotive.

In two weeks, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will play music from the soundtrack in four concerts at Cadogan Hall, accompanied by a screening of the film. ‘It wasn’t designed ever as a single piece to be played by the orchestra,’ says Hartshorne, ‘so I’ve had to transform it.’ Does that involve a lot of work? ‘Yes,’ he says, in the voice of a man who is drowning, but trying not to show it. ‘Yes, you could say that.’

It’s a good job he likes Thomas the Tank Engine, though not to a worrying extent. ‘I can confirm that I’m not a trainspotter,’ he tells me. He got to know the books by reading them to his children. Though, at the time, he didn’t nurse dreams of setting them to music. His degree was in chemistry, and the extent of his musical qualifications he tells me proudly ‘was Grade 4 piano.’ But he had always loved music, despite not being allowed to study it at school (‘basically I wasn’t good enough’). So, after getting a ‘proper job’, as a Personnel Officer for BP, he taught himself composition, eventually getting commissions for corporate productions and cheap commercials. It was a happy, if terrifying day that he quit his job at BP – more than thirty years ago now – to devote himself entirely to music.

It wasn’t until 2003, however, that he began composing for Thomas the Tank Engine, a job that he now shares with his son, Peter. At that time, the music for the series was well and truly ‘stuck in the seventies and eighties,’ he says. Part of Hartshorne’s mission was to yank it up to date, which he did, by drawing on all sorts of musical influences: jazz, country, pop, rock, classical music and even Andrew Marr’s History of the World series, for which Hartshorne also composed the music. His opinion is that ‘there’s no such thing as children’s music. There’s just music. My wife led me to believe that, because she teaches four-year-olds and has played them things like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. They liked it.’

Thomas & Friends: Sodor’s Legend of Lost Treasure has allowed Hartshorne, more than ever, to put that philosophy into practice. For one thing, it was the first Thomas the Tank Engine movie to use a real orchestra, as opposed to synthesized sound. ‘Composing for orchestra is hair-raising if you’re not doing it on a daily basis. You think “is that going to work? Have I got enough strings?” Then you get in to the studio and you think, “Oh yeah, I got away with it”,’ he says.

What he particularly loved about the experience was the chance to play with ‘a broader palette’, as he puts it: ‘In the film, there are mountainsides falling down, trains escaping through valleys, rivers flooding. The disasters are bigger and longer than in the series, so we had the chance to build bigness into it.’

And he’s not afraid to push the sense of danger: ‘My own personal view is that you can go as dark and dangerous as you like, but as long as it ends on a moment of ‘phew’, then it’s alright. Kids will take being scared. And I don’t want to worry you.’ He adds, ‘It does all come alright in the end.’

Written by Hannah Nepil

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performs music from Thomas & Friends: Sodor’s Legend of Lost Treasure at Cadogan Hall on Wednesday 26 and Thursday 27 August, accompanied by a screening of the film.

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Sali-Wyn Ryan (Second Violin) reflects on Celebration of the Sea

I feel thoroughly privileged to have been part of this highly successful project with RPO resound in Lowestoft. The week quickly evolved into an exploration of local history and nautical adventures which provided the foundation for our musical voyage. We soon found ourselves immersed in sessions of boat-related brainstorming, fishermen’s tales and instrumental challenges!

The participants were from a huge variety of backgrounds – ranging from experienced choir members to people that had never before played certain instruments – and had a wide array of skills. Focusing on stories, facts and faces from the Mincarlo Trawler and Maritime museum, we devised three pieces of music to be performed at the end of the week, alongside the work of local writer Dean Parkin. The group responded with amazing enthusiasm from day one and, encouraged by our fantastic workshop leader, Jason Rowland; my RPO colleagues and I felt fully confident we could deliver what proved to be a unique musical experience for all involved.

Our three pieces developed gradually as a series of stories, melodies, words and rhythms – influenced by interpretations of fishermen’s lives, boat names, lifeboat heroes and the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Lowestoft. We spent time working separately with instrumentalists and singers to create evocative songs in which maritime heritage inspired musical experimentation. The daily progress of the group was inspiring and we had a huge amount of fun with the people involved.

Finally, verses and choruses were written, chords and rhythms mastered, melodies memorised, a new world of musical terminology discovered and performance outfits discussed! Both performances went incredibly well (I even had a blue violin to play!) and I felt so proud of the participants and of what we, as a group, had achieved together. We managed, miraculously, to fit on the upper deck of the Mincarlo Trawler and played to an appreciative audience on the quayside. Later in the day, we gave a repeat performance outside the Marina Theatre, just ahead of our RPO evening concert. Projects like this are so important as a way of bringing people together – thank you Lowestoft for a fantastic week! I’ll finish with one of the choruses we wrote, inspired by the proud and humble lifeboatmen.

“Siren sounds
Duty calls;
Striving always strong.
Humble men, saving lives
At sea where they belong.”

Tweets on performance day…

This project is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Suffolk Community Foundation Michael Ben Howes Fund.

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The return of Top Brass with Allen Vizzutti


Written by John Evans

This September, fans of brass music are in for a very special treat when members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s percussion and brass sections, including its recently appointed Principal Trumpet James Fountain, are joined in concert by a true legend of the genre: Allen Vizzutti.

This is the trumpeter’s second appearance with the RPO in as many years, and in Top Brass 2015, he and the Orchestra will be performing two of his own compositions: Rising Sun, and a work composed especially for the occasion, called Quarks. In addition, they’ll be playing works by Watson, Bernstein and Bach, plus many more.

It’s sure to be a magical evening. Vizzutti is an exceptional performer – one who shines in all forms and styles of music. His amazing career has seen him rub musical shoulders with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Frank Sinatra, and with orchestras including the Los Angeles Philharmonic; and he has performed on soundtracks for blockbusters, including Back to the Future and Star Trek.

All this and he’s a hugely successful teacher too, inspiring young players around the world with his masterclasses and tutor books, including the essential New Concepts for Trumpet.

And to think, it all started when his father handed him a trumpet and invited him to play. “I was seven,” says Vizzutti from his home in Seattle. “Of course, it was difficult at first, but dad never let up.”

Vizzutti Senior, who owned a music store, was a keen trumpeter and would give his son pointers each day, culminating in a weekly lesson. “He’d draw up lesson plans he didn’t think anyone could get through, but it didn’t set me back.”

He knew a good sound when he heard it and insisted his young son concentrate on developing beauty of sound and phrasing. “‘You’re Italian,’ he’d remind me,” says Vizzutti.

From lessons with his father, Vizzutti eventually won a full scholarship to the Eastman School of Music in New York, where he scooped most of the major awards. “Eastman School really fired my pants,” says Vizzutti.

It surely did. Within a few years of graduating, Vizzutti’s astonishingly varied career started to take shape with sessions as a trumpeter in Hollywood for movie and TV soundtracks, recordings with pop legends and, in later years, appearances with some of the world’s greatest orchestras and their associated wind ensembles.

“Shifting between musical genres has never been a problem for me,” he says. “You develop a conceptual shift in your mind that allows you to let certain musical and technical things change. It might be those playing aspects you need to maintain control of in classical music but let go of in jazz, or vice versa.

“I listen hard to people who immerse themselves in some specific musical niche – be it jazz, pop or classical. I notice things I want to emulate and I work them into my own music.”

Throughout his long career, composing has never been far away. For Top Brass 2015, Vizzutti and members of the RPO brass and percussion sections, conducted by Philip Harper, will be performing the trumpeter’s latest composition, Quarks. It’s named after the subatomic particle and is inspired by its six types, each called – bizarrely – up, down, strange, charm, top and bottom. Each gives its name to a movement in the piece and Vizzutti plays with the RPO’s musicians either in duo or trio. One movement is just for tuned percussion.

Vizzutti is looking forward to performing his new piece, but, above all, playing his trumpet for the RPO audience.

“I love playing the trumpet because of the communication it establishes between me and my audience,” he says. “I love the instrument because although I’ve worked hard at it, it seems to come naturally to me.”

Thank heavens his father thought to put the instrument in his hands all those years ago.

Allen Vizzutti performs with Philip Harper and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Brass and Percussion sections in Top Brass 2015 on Tuesday 22 September 2015 at Cadogan Hall.

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