Adventures in Understanding Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Mozart, Bach:  Whitgift Chamber Choir, Whitgift Chamber Orchestra, Whitgift Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Cadogan Hall, London. 28.3.2018. (JB)

Mendelssohn – Symphony No.4 Op.90 ‘The Italian’

Mozart – Clarinet Concerto K.622

Bach – Magnificat in D BWV243

Bach (arr. Stokowski) – Toccata and Fugue in D minor

It is easy to forget that until the Attlee government of 1947, Health and Education in the country still (for the moment!) known as the UK, were largely in the hands of the Church.  That government went to the polls of a war-weary country with promises of free Health and Education for all. More surprisingly, and without any experience in governance, they delivered on those promises. I myself was a beneficiary of their legislation. Successive governments (including Labour governments) have been hyperactive in dismantling the Attlee promises. But whenever there is a weak, unstable government, as now, the crisis is threatened anew. And the Archbishops speak up. Though from my own view, the present Archbishop is not nearly so effective as his immediate predecessor.

It is reassuring to know that there are pockets of territories within the UK which have continued to be under the jurisdiction of the Church and therefore relatively undisturbed by the present crisis.

It was like stepping into a time-capsule last night, taking up the invitation of Paul Wilson Head of Whitgift School’s Performing Arts Centre, to celebrate the matrimony of the school with the RPO in some excellent music-making. Nothing fuddy-duddy mind, nor outdated in this music making; its vitality was its greatest strength. RPO members give instrumental tuition and as pupils progress, they are given playing experience within the RPO, sometimes in senior positions, like Leader, for this evening’s final piece.

Nothing can ever measure up to Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony when it comes to youthful exuberance. This was played with Whitgift Chamber Orchestra and the RPO, but with the latter in the minority.  Mendelssohn fell in love with Italy, writing to sister Fanny that his Italian symphony was going to be the jolliest piece I have ever written. The strings which dominate the piece were on 8:6:3:6:2. The six cellists stood out whether they were melodists or accompanists (some beautifully poised pizzicati).

I have never understood why we have difficulties in finding great, young, double bass players in the UK. Spain is the leader for young bassists, though the finest teacher is probably Franco Petracchi, an Italian, frequently on loan to Spain. He said of one of his finest Spaniards, I wish I could play this instrument as well as he and he loaned the boy his rare Stradivarius.  Another bassist would not have hurt for the Whitgift/RPO concert. But all the same, the conductor, Mr P Winter (the School uses this quaint nineteenth-century style of address for its conductors, which I shall follow throughout this report) managed the perfect balance.

The second movement, Andante con moto had exactly the right forward thrust: Mr P Winter again. The third movement con moto is said to be a minuet. But you would trip over yourself if you tried dancing to it. This movement also introduced a couple of excellent horn players. And you can always rely on Mr Winter to get the right balance.

The presto finale is in A minor. Mendelssohn indicates it is a saltarello which from Italian translates as trip over yourself. Some self-plagiarizing here as the composer makes distinct reference to the fairies of his incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a masterpiece, written in haste at the age of eighteen. It was hard not to join in the trip-yourself-up dance!

It is unusual for a symphony in A major to end in A minor. But what the minor key does, is to make it ethereal, to lift it off the ground. Mr P Winter and his players did that beautifully.

Mozart launched the clarinet as a serious instrument, exploring its nuances and colours and altogether setting the stage for its future development. The concerto was written in the last months of his life. Because it is the easiest of the wind instruments to play, conservatories have suffered by oversubscribing their clarinet classes.

The clarinet may be easy to play. But it is monstrously difficult to play well. The Bulgarian clarinettist, Marian Bozhidarova, won the Headmaster’s Scholarship at the Whitgift International Music Competition 2017, which gave him a bursary to study at the school for a year.

Archbishop John Whitgift, founder of the school in the reign of Elizabeth I, had decreed that no boy should be prevented from entering the school for want of money. This is four centuries before Attlee. He also acquired major real estate in what is today central Croydon, to pay for these many bursaries. The school is for boys only from 10 to 18 (day and boarding) and set in some forty acres of handsome land. In some years I understand the bursaries go to as many as forty percent of the school population. Trinity School is also part of the Whitgift Foundation and also with a noteworthy music tradition.

What impressed most in Marian Bozhidarova’s playing were his remarkable shades of pianissimi, in the opening Allegro and especially in the Adagio, where he succeeded in sounding like a bass clarinet – an instrument which arrived much after Mozart.  But there was also the joyous rippling of arpeggios in the finale, which he rode through with great aplomb.

The conductor was Ms R Whitfield; whose tempi were always well-chosen with consideration of the talents before her. She is Director of Music at Whitgift.

After the interval, music of Bach. The Magnificat in D, BWV 243, was Catholic music written by the Protestant Bach. Bach was extraordinarily comfortable in writing music to a Latin text. But the boys of Whitgift Chamber Choir were not at all comfortable singing it. Strain as I did, I could not make out in which language they were singing. This is odd, as the school’s Latin department is highly regarded. I was constantly reminded of Charles Kennedy Scott’s injunction to his singing students: Don’t sing notes, sing WORDS. 

Of the five soloists, Rebecca Leggett (alto) and William Searle (tenor) stood out for their passionate involvement with the text, and the superb focusing of their diction.

The Magnificat was conducted by Mr R Krippner, organist at Croydon Minster and Director of Choral Music at Whitgift.

The final orchestral splash of the evening was Leonard Stokes’s (better known by his invented name of Leopold Stokowski) extravagant orchestration of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. This was the musical firework display of the evening’s biggest forces – Whitgift Symphony Orchestra and RPO.  Mr D Smith, a music teacher at the school, sounded as though he was enjoying conducting this. And so did we, listening to it. The little dogs laughed to see such fun and the dish ran away with the spoon!

Jack Buckley

For more about Whitgift School click here.

2 thoughts on “Adventures in Understanding Music”

  1. Welcome back to the UK Jack Buckley. You were missed. I happen to be 4000 miles ‘across the pond’ but the country as a whole benefits greatly from your return.


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