Esenvalds’ Northern Lights: A sense of wonder through music

Northern Lights by Valerie

How can a composer evoke in music the sense of wonder, bewilderment and excitement one feels when they first see in person the elusive Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights?  Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds did so by combining an ancient Latvian folk song imagining Kavi soldiers battling away in the skies with the diaries of explorers explorers Charles Francis Hall (1821-1871) and Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930).

Whenever, at night, far in the north / I saw the souls of the dead soldiers / having their battle up in the sky / I was afraid: what if they bring their war to my land, too?”  The solo sings in Latvian as the choir describes in the explorers’ words the silence of the cold, dark arctic night before the Northern Lights burst out.  Water-tuned glasses with their sometimes wobbly sound add to the mysterious atmosphere until the captain exclaimed: “come above, Hall!  The world is on fire!”

As the explorer rushed up the stairs and swung open the door, the music burst into constantly moving and shimmering melodies just as the awe inspiring Northern Lights light up the sky.  Between bouts of excitement the music calms down somewhat and the glasses return, now with the addition of chimes as the explorer muse on the beauty of the scene.  Eventually tranquility returns, again with the Latvian text – “Cik naksnīnas pret ziemeli / Redzēj’ kāvus karojam” as the music gradually fades out and floats away like the elusive northern lights.

* Photo by Valerie Liauw

Come hear us perform Ešenvalds’ addictively beautiful Northern Lights with soloist Sandy Leung, Arvo Pärt’s Credo with world-renowned pianist Warren Lee, Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang and more in the upcoming Learners concert on September 23, 2017!  Tickets now available at URBTIX outlets or online at http://www.urbtix.hk/internet/eventDetail/32901

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

 

Arvo Pärt’s Credo: A scandalous premiere

The premiere of Arvo Pärt’s Credo was, to say the least, scandalous.  It was 16 November 1968 in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.  The law at the time required that all new scores must first be shown to the composers’ union before a premiere.  Knowing the sensitive nature of the piece and the likelihood that the premiere would have been cancelled had they shown the score to the officials, the conductor Neeme Järvi and the Estonian Philharmonic organization decided to not jump through the hoops and did the premiere without the Soviet officials’ blessing.

The story goes that had a certain official not been out of town at the time, the premiere would have been blocked.  In any case, the religious nature of the work was no favourite of the Soviet government.  From the initial proclamation of “Credo in Jesum Christum” (I believe in Jesus Christ) to the following text from Matthew 5:38 “Audivistis dictum: oculum pro oculo, dentem pro dente” (Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth), the work was seen as politically provocative and the Soviet saw it as a manifesto of passive resistance.

That certainly didn’t play well with the officials.  Whilst Järvi was relatively fine as the officials couldn’t find anyone to replace him, quite a few were fired from the Estonian Philharmonic organization and official commission for Pärt dried up.  The work was promptly banned by the Soviets and Pärt went into an extended hiatus in composing in search for a new musical language.

Come hear us perform Arvo Pärt’s Credo with world-renowned pianist Warren Lee, Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang and more in the upcoming Learners concert on September 23, 2017!  Tickets now available at URBTIX outlets or online at http://www.urbtix.hk/internet/eventDetail/32901

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

The New Mayangone Village Middle School

At Su Hta Village and Thay Yar Yu Village we have recently opened two primary schools for the students.  At Mayangone Village, however, things are a bit different.  The village is larger and somewhat less remote than the other two and already have one of the open plan primary school building.  The problem here was that there is no middle school for the students to go to once they’ve finished primary education.

Our effort here will therefore be to support the construction of a middle school for the kids to further their studies.  In February 2017 our Vice-Chairman Kevin Cheng has joined Ms. Winnie Wong (our partner at the Hong Kong Christian Council) and their local engineer representative at the negotiations with government officials for the school.  Approval for the school was granted earlier in the year and the meeting determined the funding and execution details of the project.

Construction of the Mayangone Village Middle School in Myanmar soon began. Progress photos below are from various visits by the local partners of the Hong Kong Christian Council.  In the few months since February the foundation has been laid.  The frame for the building has gone up and the walls are being built. The steel beams to support the roof has also arrived to be erected. If all goes well, the roof should be up before the rainy season.

This school is supported by proceeds from the Learners Orchestra and the Learners Chorus’ recent concert 10 May x 10 Years: A French Celebration and our next concert in September.

Mayangone netogation

Negotation with government officials alongside the HKCC’s local partner – an experienced engineer who will help to monitor the progress of the project.

Mayangone negotiations

Ms. Winnie Wong of Hong Kong Christian Council making a speech after the negotiations concluded.

Mayangone negotiations

The execution details for the Mayangone Middle School are determined. A deal was made! Our engineer partner shakes hand with a local representative.

Mayangone Gorundwork

Construction began in March 2017. Ground works being carried out.

Mayangone groundwork

Construction began in March 2017. Ground works being carried out.

Mayangone construction

The frame and some walls were up by the end of April 2017.

Mayangone construction

The frame and some walls were up by the end of April 2017. Frames for the roof have arrived

Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony: Dedicated to… oh he died.

Composers often dedicate their works.  Most of the time the dedicatee would be members of the aristocracy, kings, wealthy patrons and the like, hoping for their support for the composers’ music.  Sometimes, however, the dedicatee would be friends or peers.  Rachmaninoff famously dedicated his second piano concerto to Nikolai Dahl who helped him with his depression, and Mahler dedicated his Symphony of a Thousand to his wife Alma Mahler.

Saint-Saëns intended to dedicate his 3rd Symphony (Organ Symphony) to Franz Liszt, who was 24 years his senior and one of the early supporters of his music.  The composer’s popular opera Samson et Dalila, for example, owed its Weimar premiere to the efforts of Liszt after not seeing any interest from French opera houses of the time.  When Liszt heard Saint-Saëns play the organ at La Madeleine in Paris, he declared him the greatest organist in the world.

Unfortunately, that was not to be.  Liszt died on 31 July 1886, shortly after the premiere of the Organ Symphony on 19 May of the same year, before the score was published – with the inscription “Á la Memoire de Franz Liszt” – to the memory of Franz Liszt.

Come hear us perform Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony”, Poulenc’s Gloria and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at learnershk@gmail.com for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony: The birth of a favourite

A few weeks ago we talked about Poulenc’s open commission for an “orchestral work of major proportions” which he turned into a 6 movement Gloria.  Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony, which we will be performing in our upcoming concert, was not an open commission – but the composer got to write what he wanted anyway.

In 1886, the Royal Philharmonic Society invited the composer to give a performance in London of one of his concertos, old or new.  Eventually, however, the two parties reached an agreement whereby the French composer would create an entirely new symphonic work under the commission of the Society.  Being considered by many as the greatest living French composer of the time certainly had its perks.

*with* organ… but that’s fine.

Thus born was his Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, the third and last of his completed symphonies published with an opus number.  Thanks to the composer’s inscription of it as Symphonie No. 3 “avec orgue” (i.e. “with organ”), the symphony later became dearly known as the “Organ Symphony”.  The fact that this is a symphony where the pipe organ is used, rather than a true symphony for organ, does not affect the popularity of the work.

The composer considered the Organ Symphony as one of his greatest works, packed with innovation of the time.  In his own words:

I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.

Come hear us perform Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony”, Poulenc’s Gloria and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at learnershk@gmail.com for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

Poulenc’s Gloria: Benedictine monks playing soccer?

Gloria Laudamus Te

The second movement caused a scandal; I ask why?  I was merely thinking, in my writing, of those Gozzoli frescoes in which the angels stick out their tongues; and also of some serious Benedictine monks whom I saw one day playing soccer.

Thus spoke Poulenc in response to criticism on the second movement of the Gloria.  Marked Très vif et joyeux (very lively and cheerful), the score certainly calls for a mood vastly different from what usually associated with a Gloria.  The music itself was also surprisingly cheerful and somewhat carefree.

From the short trombone call at the beginning of the movement (that was actually a bouncing of notes between TWO trombones), to the short-long-long-short rhythm of the choir when the “Laudamus te” text is introduced, to the ostinato rhythm of the orchestral accompaniment and the frequent and abrupt key changes, nothing showed the usual seriousness of the religious text.

Except, perhaps, for the very brief chant-like passage and the short strings section that followed for the text “Gratias agimus tibi” that sounded a bit more serious.  Soon though, the music would revert to the carefree bouncing of phrases between the upper and lower voices of the choir.

It was therefore unsurprising that early audiences and critics were disturbed by this joyful second movement, prompting Poulenc’s comparison with the soccer-playing Benedictine monks!

Come hear us perform Poulenc’s Gloria, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at learnershk@gmail.com for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

Fantasia & Fugue in C minor: Deal? No deal!

Many say that Elgar’s Cello Concerto was his last notable work.  After the premiere of the Cello Concerto in late 1919 and his wife Alice’s death in 1920, it seemed like he has lost the willingness to compose.  His wife has always been a source of inspiration and support to Elgar.  Her death and the lack of public demand of music from him (his work went out of fashion) led to the refocus of his attention to other hobbies.

Instead of any new major works, Elgar turned his attention to orchestrating the works of the old masters.  He was no newcomer to transcribing – before he committed to pursuing a career as a composer he used to transcribe such works for the various performance groups he was associated with.

No deal!

When Elgar met with his long-time friend Richard Strauss in 1920, the 1st World War was still on people’s mind and they were eager to heal the rift.  He suggested a joint project to orchestrate Bach’s Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, BWV 537.  Elgar would do the Fugue whilst Strauss would do the Fantasia.

Nothing came of the deal.  Whilst Elgar did finish orchestrating the Fugue, Strauss did not.  Subsequently, when he was asked to “write something” for the 1922 Three Choirs Festival, he remembered this incomplete orchestration and set about to do the Fantasia as well.  Thus the orchestrated version of the Fantasia & Fugue was born.

Come hear us perform Elgar’s magnificent orchestration of Bach’s Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at learnershk@gmail.com for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

Poulenc’s Gloria: Taking errors to a whole new level

Poulenc's Gloria 2nd movement error

It is common to find the inevitable odd error in even the best edited scores.  With Poulenc’s Gloria, however, there are hundreds of errors, ranging from wrong notes and text to misprinted clefs and misprinted rhythm.  The initial responsibility was not entirely on the shoulders of Edition Salabert, the publisher of the scores, although the failure to subsequently update and correct their scores cannot be denied.

Part of the reason for such messiness was the composer’s habit of working with his musical shorthand with much crossing out.  His frequent revision made accuracy practically impossible.  The original manuscripts and the first recording in 1961 differs.  The manuscripts for the full score and the vocal score differs.  To make things even worse, the composer has made changes during the 3 years the initial published scores took to be engraved and printed!

The revised edition isn’t any better

The scores are so “famous” for its errors that various journal articles have been published on the topic.  The articles were meant not only to detail the errors but also to urge the publisher to publish a corrected edition.  That was not to be, unfortunately, as the revised edition of the score (1996) was just as packed with errors.

As such, corrections need to be made prepare the scores for performance.  Librarians of professional orchestras often create their own set of part scores, incorporating all known errors and changes.  Fortunately, Professor Lee Barrow of the University of North Georgia has published an errata list on both editions of the scores based on his work with the manuscripts of the Gloria.  His work was extremely helpful for anyone who is planning to perform this very popular Gloria.

Come hear us perform Poulenc’s Gloria, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at learnershk@gmail.com for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

Poulenc’s Gloria: You pay, I decide what to write!

Poulenc Gloria

In 1959 when Poulenc decided to write his Gloria, he has just seen the success of his operas “Dialogues des Carmélites” and “La voix humaine”.  Having failed to find a satisfactory libretto for yet another new opera, he decided to return to the choral genre.  His friend Pierre Bernac sent him the text and translation of the Gloria, and the decision was made.  Then came the question of money: who’s going to pay for it?

It happened that around that time the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in touch with Poulenc for a possible commission.  The composer, unwilling to conform to the initial instrumentation requirements, has been declining this commission for an “orchestral work of major proportions”.  Once he decided to compose a Gloria, however, he turned back to the Koussevitzky Foundation.

I’m taking it, but only under my terms!

His offer was this:  he will take the commission, but instead of a purely orchestral work, he would write a Gloria for mixed choir, soprano and orchestra that is 20-25 minutes in duration.  With some negotiation and possibly the help of conductor Charles Munch, the Foundation agreed to leave the terms open, and Poulenc wrote his Gloria over the next year.

The American premiere in Boston and the European premiere of the finished Gloria happened within a few weeks of each other.  Surprisingly, the reception differed vastly in the two regions.  In Paris, reviewers complained that the work was not as good as his Stabat Mater, and BBC reviewers found it “unworthy of its dignified text”.  In America, however, the Gloria was met with high praise and the New York Music Critics Circle Award.

Regardless of such polarized opinions, Poulenc’s Gloria is now frequently performed choral works and a mainstay of the choral repertoire.

Come hear us perform Poulenc’s Gloria, Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony” and more in the upcoming Learners concert on May 10, 2017! Contact us at 9234 6057 or by email at learnershk@gmail.com for ticketing and donation enquiry.

Donations will be made to the Hong Kong Christian Council’s “School Building Project in Myanmar” to build a new middle school for graduates of the Mayangone Primary School.

The new village school at Su Hta

Throughout the years of military dictatorship, Myanmar has long suffered from civil war and economic and political isolation from the international community. It was only until recently that the country embarked on a process of gradual liberalisation, taking a giant step away from the shadow of oppression and enabling numerous displaced villagers to rebuild their livelihood.

Su Hta is one such village, located 3.5 hours to the west of Taungoo (including 2.5 hours of trailer ride). Access is difficult, although the villagers are creating motorcycle paths to nearby villages.

The Su Hta Village School was donated by three doctor friends of the Learners Chorus as a result of fundraising activity from the Mozart Great Mass in C minor concert on September 16, 2016, and will allow children to stay at home whilst still getting education.  The new school building is open-plan to maximize flexibility and to limit construction costs. Simple partitions are used to split the hall into smaller teaching areas and the many windows provide ample sunlight, minimizing any need for electricity, which is difficult to come by at these remote, off-grid locations.

Our vice-chairman performing a simple opening ceremony with a local representative.

Winnie Wong of the Hong Kong Christian Council unlocking the doors of the school.

Students and villagers came to attend the opening ceremony. Some walked from surrounding villages and everybody had their best outfit on.

The teachers of the Su Hta Village School.

With the new school came new toilets. Very simple construction, but this is sanitary with running water pulled by gravity.