Grace Notes: A concert of musical chairs

Last Thursday, Trinity Laban performed a concert in Blackheath Halls consisting of a Berlioz overture, a commissioned work, and some Bartok. What made this concert unusual, was that the stage had to be set three times! This meant, rather than getting comfy and making myself at home in my desk during rehearsals (basically unpacking my life around my chair, and not having to move it until concert day), I had to constantly move seats in a game of never ending musical chairs!Berlioz setup

Here is roughly how our orchestra was set up for the ‘Overture, from Benvenuto Cellini’ by Berlioz and the comission ‘Dreamsong’ by Alexander Bourne-Clark. If you look closely, you’ll see that the second violins are opposite the first violins, instead of the cellos being there, and the violas are now on the left hand half of the stage, rather than the right. As I was a second violin, I was now on the outside. It was very strange for me sat there, as I’m usually very aware of what the first violins have (the two sections often have similar parts) but I could barely hear them! I found this meant having to concentrate a lot more on what was going on around me in the string section in order for us to stay together. The one thing I did hear more of however was the brass! Although it was very loud sitting in such close proximity to them, it did prove helpful when we had similar themes in our parts. Again, we stayed like this for ‘Dreamsong’. This was a piece that was full of effects, so there wasn’t the same challenge of trying to sync up the string parts. From sitting in my seat I could see and hear the percussion more clearly and it was facinating watching all the interesting ways they were playing instruments (e.g. bowing cymbals) and the interesting instruments they were playing (the piece ended with an alarm clock going off which was one of my favourite parts of the concert!).

Bartok Strings setup

The first half ended with a piece by Bartok called ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta’. This involved a total reset of the stage because the wind weren’t needed, and the string section had to be transformed into two separate string orchestras. I was playing the violin three part, and so was sat (if you look at the diagram above) where it says ‘first violins’ on the right hand side of the image. This piece and set up was challenging in various ways. Firstly, it was very rhythmical and trying to coordinate rhythms when everyone is so spread out was difficult! Due to the fact that the orchestra was split in half, there were fewer people on the parts and this meant that we were more exposed which was terrifying! We really had to know what we were supposed to be playing and when. After this half, the whole string section was knackered and needed the interval to prepare ourselves for the second half.

Bartok concerto setup

For the second half, the seating changed again. This time to a conventional orchestral setting with the cellos and first violins on the outside (like the diagram above). It was in this set up that we played Bartok’s ‘Concert for Orchestra’. I like being back in the ‘normal’ spot for second violins as I find it far easier to fit my part in when sat there. I think it’s because, being surrounded by all the other sections, you can hear what everyone else is doing.

Once the concert had finished and the stage was cleared for the final time we were all exhausted by the mammoth programme! It was great to play such a diverse concert however, and was an interesting experience playing in so many different spots within the orchestra.



Grace Notes: Photography tour of Cardiff

During the Christmas holidays I met up with one of my friends, Gez Charles, who is a school music teacher and photographer. She had kindly agreed to take some pictures of me with my violin, in and around Cardiff and although our first date got rained off, on December 30th we manage to get a beautifully sunny (yet freezing) day.

I wanted to have some high quality photos of myself for promotional use and as headshots for various things, including this blog! I like slightly more natural photos, not taken in a studio, and as Cardiff is so beautiful and has lots of interesting landscapes, we thought we should make the most of living in such a wonderful city.


One of the shots from Cardiff Bay

We started the day off in the bay, using areas around the Wales Millenium Centre and the docks before moving on. Later we took a few in Roath Park on a beautiful bridge. From the photos it looks like a warm summer day, but I can assure you it wasn’t! Gez was behind the camera well wrapped up the whole time and I was very jealous! Our final location for the day was in the wooded area around Castell Coch which was lovely, aside from having to dodge cars as they came along the road every now and then! I got some slightly strange looks standing there in my concert dress!


The beautiful ‘summer’ day in Roath Park

I have made a new page on my blog called ‘Gallery’ where you can see these photos. I love them and I’m so pleased that Gez agreed to take them for me. Here is a link to her website where you can check out some of her other photographs too.

I hope you like the new gallery page. I’m looking forward to seeing you all next week where I’ll be talking about some filming my quartet did last Sunday.

Grace Notes: A fusion of Welsh and Chinese music

For Christmas, I was given an album by The Gentle Good entitled ‘Y Bardd Anfarwol’ (the immortal bard). The Gentle Good is the stage name of Gareth Bonello, a Welsh songwriter who takes inspiration from the language and poetry of Wales to create beautiful music.

My Dad had spotted this album, thought it looked interesting and picked it up without ever hearing any of it before. When I read that it was bringing together elements from Welsh and Chinese music I was intrigued and when I played it on Boxing day I had no idea what to expect.


The album art (I do not own this image)

The album describes the life of the poet Li Bai during the Tang Dynasty who wrote around a thousand poems. We begin with him leaving home as a young man to look for a Taoist master in the mountains, travelling along the rivers in China while dealing with the loneliness of leaving his family behind. The poetry (and the music) follows his journey through mountainous landscapes, waterfalls of the Lou Mountain and the moon, a running theme throughout his poems. Then comes his failed career as a military strategist that forces him to travel further than he’d ever been before in exile. Time also comes into play as we see him accepting aging and then drowning as he (now a poet god) attempts to embrace the moon reflected in the water.

The album opens with the sounds of a busy street in China, before a traditional Chinese string instrument enters playing an improvisatory passage. About a minute in, the street fades out and a guitar playing a more conventional western rhythm enters with a flute and violin playing long held harmonies. After this first purely instrumental track called ‘Erddigan Chengdu’ the rest of the album follows with a mix of songs, in Welsh but with traditional Chinese harmony and instruments, and instrumental pieces. It’s a very beautiful and relaxing album that paints a magical picture of this poet’s journey.

(one of my favourite songs from the album)

If you look on ‘The Gentle Good’s website there is a link to their SoundCloud where you can listen to this whole album. Since Christmas, I have been listening to this album a lot, and it’s become one of my favourites. I thoroughly recommend it because it’s something different, but not so different that you feel like you can’t connect with the music. It’s an amazing fusion of cultures and I’d love to hear more like this in the future.

Grace Notes: Hedd Wyn in Berlin

In the summer of 2013 I went on tour with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales to Germany, performing a series of concerts in a number of stunning locations. This was one of the first tours I had been on that had been this intense. We had a concert every night and spent large chunks of the days travelling on coaches. This meant, sadly, that we didn’t have much time to explore, but in a way this didn’t matter as we were caught up in the excitement of the concerts and the venues.

One of the pieces was a commission written by the harpist Catrin Finch. It is a harp concerto based on the life of Hedd Wyn (the Welsh poet who won the Bard’s Chair at the National Eisteddfod in 1917 posthumously after being killed during World War 1) and the different sections represent different events in his life. Over Christmas, a program was broadcast on S4C about how Catrin Finch wrote the work by finding out about Hedd Wyn’s life. Having only seen the piece in its finished form, it was very interesting for me to watch it being constructed.

The program charts how she visits his old house and talks to the caretaker to find out about his life. It then shows Catrin collaborating with a teacher at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama to realise her ideas into a full orchestra score. Then we (the NYOW) make an appearance. It shows how Catrin worked with the orchestra to fine tune the piece and show us how much this work meant to her.


Recording the concerto with Catrin

The second half of the program is the performance in the Berlin Konzerthaus. I think that concert is one of the best I have ever taken part in. The audience filled the whole hall and we got an incredible response from everyone. The concerto went down particularly well and the audience enjoyed the Welsh theme running throughout the program. The concerto features extracts from Hedd Wyn’s poetry (in Welsh) at the start of each if the four sections and the two encores were also special because both are Welsh songs and feature the orchestra singing (Grant Llewellyn the conductor decided to include the singing after hearing us belting out welsh songs in the bar in the evenings) in the Welsh language.


Recording the concerto with Catrin

I think the piece is very effective and showcases the orchestra and harp beautifully. The program is still available to watch on S4C Clic and BBC iPlayer as I post this and it will be for another 20 days or so. However if you’re watching from somewhere not in the UK I’m not sure the link will work for you, so here is the piece on soundcloud, using the same recording from the Berlin concert.

I hope you enjoy hearing this concerto as much as we enjoyed performing the concert. This piece is particularly poignant now because of the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, and I think expressing one of the many stories from that time through music is a particularly effective memorial.