Contributed by Martin Widden
Some music is composed to celebrate a person – probably the best known example is Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, composed in honour of Napoleon, although Beethoven later withdrew the dedication in disgust at Napoleon’s declaring himself emperor; some portray an actual event, such as Verdi’s opera The Masked Ball, about the very real assassination of King Gustav of Sweden in 1792. But music is usually a self-sufficient form of art, existing without needing to refer to any external person or event. Nonetheless, two recent recitals in the Great Hall have been programmed to respond to the present situation in the world.
The first of these was a performance on 7 November by English Touring Opera of The Silver Lake, by Kurt Weill. (Weill was the composer who collaborated with the playwright Bertolt Brecht on The Threepenny Opera, which includes the well-known song Mack the Knife.) The story of the opera centres on an impoverished youth, Severin, who steals a pineapple and is shot and wounded by a policeman, Olim. Conscience-stricken at what he has done, Olim visits Severin in hospital, and from this follows an increasingly fantastical story, leading the pair finally to a silver frozen lake, which they are able to cross and make their way to a new future. On the bare Great Hall stage without scenery, and to the accompaniment of a 30-strong orchestra, ETO gave a compelling performance of this story about poverty, hunger and deprivation. It is particularly encouraging that, as at all ETO’s performances, the chorus was recruited locally from choirs based in and around Lancaster.
On 5 December, the Great Hall hosted a recital entitled The Labyrinth by the Israeli-American pianist David Greilsammer. Based loosely on Janacek’s suite On an Overgrown Path, this was a series of short pieces, generally improvisatory in nature, by composers ranging from the 17th century German JJ Froberger, via CPE Bach and Mozart, to the contemporary American Philip Glass. The recital lasted only about 70 minutes, but afterwards Greilsammer returned to answer questions from the audience, and it was here that he remarked that he had put together the programme to reflect the chaotic times we are living in. It was a very interesting series of works which made sense in his hands, even though in the printed programme it looked like a random list. Greilsammer was able to master the varied styles of the pieces very convincingly.
Review by Martin Widden
Some years ago, with help from the Friends of the Lancaster Concerts, the University bought a new Steinway concert grand piano for the Great Hall. Our old Steinway had reached the stage where good pianists were complaining about the state of it, and seemed quite likely to start refusing to come to Lancaster. Having this new piano has enabled the University to bring excellent pianists to Lancaster to perform in the concert series. Last week’s concert was one such, with a recital by Eric Lu, winner of the first prize in the 2018 Leeds international piano competition.
His programme opened with the A minor Rondo by Mozart. This late piece by Mozart, dating from 1787, is full of emotion, and Lu captured this excellently in a sensitive performance. He followed this with the six Klavierstücke by Brahms. These are serious pieces, demanding the deepest insight from the performer, and again Eric Lu was able to tap into this very well despite his relatively tender years (he is 21).
After the interval, we had Handel’s Chaconne in G major, a series of variations on a theme. Handel’s skill in developing this short and simple theme into complex and mesmerising variations is remarkable.
The recital ended with the second sonata by Chopin – the one that includes as its third movement the well-known funeral march. This is a virtuoso piece, which was played with complete confidence by the pianist.
The performance of this varied and well-balanced programme by Eric Lu was highly satisfying. He evidently studies the music so that he becomes fully aware of the composer’s intentions, and his technique is so assured that he is able to communicate these to the listener very clearly.
This was an excellent recital in every way – possibly the best piano performance of recent years in the Lancaster series of concerts, and a fine end to the 2018-19 concert season.
Review: BBC Phil plays the Great Hall
The concert given in the Great Hall on 7 February was the first by the BBC Philharmonic since they were re-appointed as the University’s Orchestra in Residence in December. The large audience proved once again that concerts by a full symphony orchestra are a sure-fire hit: the concert was a sell-out. It featured two substantial works: a clarinet concerto by Edward Cowie entitled Ruskin’s Dreams, and the sixth symphony of Tchaikovsky.
A Lecturer in Music at Lancaster from 1973-1983, Cowie is not just a composer, but also a successful painter, particularly of birds. In his programme notes for the concert, Cowie suggests that his life has some parallels with Ruskin’s: both were painters, both were sufferers from some form of mental illness. These overlaps can surely be of very limited significance. Still, the clarinet concerto was, it seems, inspired by Ruskin’s life and works, and by Lake Coniston, which is where Ruskin spent his later life. Whilst he was at Lancaster in the 1970s, Cowie’s compositions were miniatures, so it came as a surprise to find him writing skilfully for a full symphony orchestra. It’s too soon to know whether Ruskin’s Dreams will enter the regular concert repertoire.
Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony is nicknamed the Pathétique, a name suggested to him by his brother and accepted by the composer, and the music clearly suggests self-pity. There are several possible reasons for this. One is that Tchaikovsky suffered severe personal problems due to his homosexuality and the failure of his marriage. What is more, composing symphonies did not come naturally to Tchaikovsky. A symphony is an extended work for orchestra, usually in several separate and contrasted movements, with a formal structure, particularly for the first movement: this form was established in the days of Haydn and Mozart. Being essentially an emotional composer, Tchaikovsky could not flourish under the constraints imposed by this form. His sixth symphony is not only an expression of his personal misery, but it also seems to echo the spiritual hunger of our age. It is always a popular item on an orchestra’s programme, as it was in the Great Hall. The BBC Phil clearly know the symphony very well and they gave it full romantic value.
The composer conducted the first performance of the symphony in St Petersburg in early October 1893. He made some small revisions for the second performance, planned for later in the month, but before that could take place, Tchaikovsky had unfortunately died. This symphony uses the orchestra’s resources to the full, and the BBC Phil rose to the occasion very well.
Contributed by Martin Widden
The Deli has had a refurb, and it’s very much a ‘take everything away and start again’ refurb.
The problem with The Deli’s predecessor, The Venue, was not really the food, but the way you felt a little bit like you were sat at the breakfast bar of a show-home kitchen. Old Deli had a similar (lack of) ambience. So, credit is definitely due to whoever designed New Deli, because they’ve finally created a space where someone might want to sit and spend time in. The lighting is lower and the tables seem slightly closer together. The serving area’s been moved to the far wall (the one closest to Alex Square) which does create a bit of a squash, to be honest, but at least you’re not queueing out of the door, as you used to.
The main hot product at lunch is the cryptically-named ‘stew’. Your subtext reviewer drone chose vegetable and took a seat. When it came it was very nice, with carrots, barley and onions. There’s also an accompanying jar, containing two blanched slices of carrot, some cauliflower and a pickled gherkin, in a bit of vinegar. Are you supposed to add it to the stew, or something? Lose the gherkin if you want this to happen.
For those just wanting something to take away, there are plenty of sandwiches and salads, including the Turkey Focaccia Club and a California Veggie Sandwich.
There’s a lot of space on the new menu devoted to coffee. Sadly, the ‘drip blends’ (filter coffee to you and me) from Atkinson’s hadn’t yet arrived in stock, so subtext lingered over a latte while admiring the coffee ‘tasting notes’ from the menu. Who’s going to be able to resist the Guatemala Pensativo, a ‘coffee from the immediate vicinity affected by the Fuego volcanic eruption’? As we enjoy the ‘custard cream biscuit mouthfeel’ we’re encouraged to ‘spare a moment to think of those stoic communities around Pensativo.’ What a world we live in today.
Contributed by Martin Widden
The composer J S Bach was very skilled at reusing pieces he had composed for other purposes, a practice he often adopted to enable him to meet the many tight deadlines he was set by his employers. But the St Matthew Passion is unusual among Bach’s major sacred works in having been composed as a whole, rather than being put together or adapted from music he had on the shelf. A devout Christian, Bach evidently regarded the composition of this work as a highly important matter in his life – it is tightly structured, and we are told that the manuscript is much more neatly finished than those for most of his works.
In these relatively faithless times, it fortunately isn’t necessary to be a Christian to appreciate the wonders of this work. The Passion is an account of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ, a tale that includes capture, denial, betrayal, and appeal to the instincts of the crowd (as we know, they preferred Barabbas, a known crook, to Jesus, and Pilate washed his hands of their decision). It is a dramatic story, and Bach’s treatment of it exploits the dramatic potential of the story to the full.
The University’s 2018-19 international concert season opened with a performance of the St Matthew Passion by English Touring Opera, presented in Lancaster Priory Church. The principal soloists sang their parts from memory, without books or copies. They were thus able to move around the church engaging the audience with eye contact. As a member of the audience, it was sometimes a little unnerving to be addressed from a distance of only a metre or two by a powerful singer, especially if you weren’t quite expecting it, but the dramatic effect was very strong, and to have the piece performed by an opera company seemed completely appropriate.
The story is told by the Evangelist. This is a big part – very reasonably, it was shared among several singers – and as they sang in German, it was useful to have surtitles on screens at the front of the church. The part of Christ is always accompanied by sustained strings, representing his halo remarkably effectively. The chorus was formed of local singers. Putting all this together is a considerable logistical triumph, since there is little time for rehearsal with everyone present, but no hitches were detectable on the night.
English Touring Opera are performing the St Matthew Passion at some eleven locations around the country. To witness and be part of one of these performances was a great experience: we were fortunate that one of them was given here in Lancaster.
As part of a possibly ongoing series of reviews of the places that matter on campus (i.e. food and drink venues) we have dispatched our gaggle of taster drones on a culinary fact finding mission. The first to report back was last seen in public staggering out of Go Burrito, clutching its stomach-parts and softly whimpering ‘can’t… eat… any… moar’.
The campus Go Burrito started as a rather ingenious attempt to keep a business afloat – or rather, not afloat, given the mothership premises are on Church Street in Lancaster, in one of the areas of the city centre worst affected by flooding following Storm Desmond in late 2015.
The formula is relatively simple, and superficially reminiscent of the Starbucks/Subway style choice system, where customers are given a series of increasingly complex options about what exactly they want in their food. At Go Burrito, fortunately, rather than over-sweetened and overpriced coffee drinks or limp-looking bread rolls topped with limp-looking other stuff, the choices are rather more appealing. Patrons are invited to choose their burrito size, type of beans, spicy or mild rice, main filling (a choice of around 5-6 meat or vegetarian options including beef/veggie chilli, pulled pork, stir fry veg, and sometimes specials), salsas of various spiciness, and a large selection of other fillings including jalapeños, guacamole and, for some bizarre reason, crushed tortilla chips.
There isn’t much in the way of sides: currently curly fries or nachos, and the hot cheese sauce is a bit too like what you might find in a cinema chain (our drone preferred sour cream as a topping). The drinks are also a little on the sugary side (who even knew that Lilt still existed?), but by and large Go Burrito offers a decent lunch of not too unhealthy fast-food at non-astronomical prices. And if you ramp up the spice levels enough, you might even be able to stay awake after lunch despite having consumed a large burrito oozing with cheesy chilli goodness.