Grace Notes: Shostakovich and a Seed Vault in Svalbard

You may wonder what a Russian composer and a scientific storehouse to prevent loss of seed types in a global crisis have in common.  Quite a lot in fact!

Yesterday, my Dad phoned and told me that he had heard an interesting episode of ‘The Food Program’ on BBC Radio 4.  This episode was about an upcoming documentary called ‘The Grain Divide’, about how the relationship between wheat and people has changed, and what this may hold for us in the future. There was a particular  section of this that especially interested me. It was about Svalbard Global Seed Vault which is on the Norwegian island  of Spitsbergen and was built about 7 years ago. There are three giant vaults filled with millions of seed types from all over the world, in an attempt to insure against the loss of seeds and food types in a global crisis.


The Svalbard Seed Vault (I do not own this image)

Following on from this, one story caught my attention. It was about Nikolai Vavilov’s seed bank in Leningrad (now St Petersburg). On the 8th September 1941 the last road to Leningrad was severed by the German Army  and the siege of Leningrad began. Many things of national importance, such as the works of art and some musicians were evacuated, but the seed bank was not. A group of scientists working with Vavilov, boxed up a representative sample  of this collection of 250,000 samples of seeds, roots and fruits, and protected it for the entirety of the siege, believing that once the siege ended it would be one of the only  ways to help the city start up again. They refused to eat any of the contents of it, meaning that by the end of the siege in 1944, nine of the guards had died of starvation. One, who was in charge of the rice store, was found at his desk, having died of starvation, surrounded by bags of rice he hadn’t cooked and eaten to save himself. Vavilov also wasn’t very fortunate and through repeatedly insulting a biologist that earned the respect of Stalin he found himself with a prison sentence for 20 years, but ended up dying of starvation in 1943. His seed bank is now stored in the Institute of Plant Industry in St Petersburg.

This got me thinking about the siege of Leningrad, and I immediately jumped to Shostakovich (who I’m sure I’ve already mentioned is my favourite composer) and his 7th Symphony. I played this with my county orchestra a few years ago and it stuck with me due to the exciting music with so much history attached.

Shostakovich lived in Leningrad and was there for the first few weeks of the siege, where he wrote most of the first three movements of his 7th symphony, and completed it in December 1941. The world premier was in the Kuibyshev with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, but the premier in Leningrad was something different altogether. On 9th August 1942 (the day Hitler said the city would fall) the surviving members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, (supplemented with survivors from the city and musicians drafted in from the military) performed Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (nicknamed ‘Leningrad’ and dedicated to the city) to a full house at the Grand Philharmonia Hall. The people who didn’t fit in, and the soldiers on duty listened through loudspeakers and on radios. This performance was encouraged by politicians as it was seen as a morale boost to citizens and soldiers.


The Grand Philharmonia Hall as it looks today (I do not own this image)

The Leningrad Radio Orchestra was the only orchestra left in the city after the evacuation, but due to the large number of deaths in the city (mostly starvation, freezing temperatures or fighting) there were only 14 or 15 members left. Shostakovich had scored the piece for 100 players, so the organisers went to personally seek out the people who hadn’t responded due to weakness caused by starvation and illness. It is said that lots of the musicians had a new rush for life at the chance to play again, and rehearsals started when the scare had been airlifted in with supplies.

The first rehearsal in March 1942, was scheduled for three hours, but had to be stopped after 15 minutes because all 30 musicians who were there,  were too weak to play. The conductor Eliasberg was so unwell that he could barely conduct, had to be dragged to the rehearsal venue on a sledge and was eventually moved to live closer.  To combat starvation, players were given extra rations, and hot bricks were used to heat the rooms, but three players still died during rehearsals. Posters went up and people were called in to play from all over the city to supplement the orchestra.

They rehearsed from 10-1, six days a week, but often were interrupted by air raid sirens. Before the performance, there was only one complete run of the symphony on 6th August. In order to hide the shivering caused by starvation, the musicians were bundled up in lots of layers (like ‘cabbages’). When they felt they couldn’t continue playing due to exhaustion, the audience stood up to spur them on. The performance ended with an hour long standing ovation. Even a German General, sat in the trenches heard the broadcast and later said ‘When it finished I realized that never ever shall we be able to enter Leningrad. It is not a city that can be conquered’.

(I do not own this piece)

Seeing stories like this make me realise how lucky we are now. When I go  to rehearsals there aren’t people missing because they missed one too many meals. We don’t have to cover up our shivering from audiences. We don’t have to heat our halls with bricks in order to survive.

For the past week we have been celebration Winston Churchill’s leadership in our country during the Second World War. However, we also need to remember that the war was also won by the courage of ordinary citizens trying their best to carry on in horrific circumstances, like the botanists and musicians of Leningrad.


Grace Notes: How to prepare for a concert with only one day of rehearsal

Last Friday I took part in a concert with Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra where we played ‘A London Symphony’ by Vaughan  Williams. This was a ‘Side by Side’  project, which meant that teachers and professionals were sitting in the orchestra playing alongside us (in the string sections we had the pros sitting in the number 2 spot). What was most difficult about this project was that we only had one rehearsal as a full orchestra and one 2 hour sectional earlier in the week. I want to share some tips that I found helped me to prepare for this so that I wasn’t still practically sightreading in the concert.

Before you start to practice your part:

  • Listen to the recording so you can familiarise yourself with the work (if you are doing this for an audition and not a concert also research the background just in case you are asked any questions about it)
  • Mark in cues (often having a score for this helps too) by what you hear so that when sitting in a full rehearsal totally lost, you can get yourself back in again.
  • Highlight (always with a pencil though…) the exposed and fast bits so when you have a chance to practice you can zone in on those sections and not waste time practicing slow notes.
  • Listen with a metronome and mark in the approximate tempos so there won’t be any nasty surprises when you get to the full rehearsal (this has happened to me a couple of times and doesn’t make the rehearsal easy going!)
  • Keep listening. It can be really boring sitting and following your part, but just have it on in the background and get in your head through the power of osmosis.

(I do not own this video)

While practicing:

  • Practice slowly with a metronome, and gradually speed up any passages that seem too fast to play at first. To ensure you can really play it, take the metronome faster than you’ll have to do it in the concert and then you’ll be sure you can get it right on the night. You need to be really picky though, as there is no point in practicing mistakes fast. Don’t go up a metronome ‘notch’ unless you are comfortable with the current speed.
  • Don’t be tempted to play all the way through your part. The tunes are fun to play, but they are probably (obviously there are some exceptions) some of the easier bits of the piece. Especially if you only have limited time to practice, make sure you have highlighted what needs work and focus on those sections.
  • Don’t be afraid to write in fingerings. These will help when you get to that tricky bit and can’t remember the amazing fingering you came up with.
  • Play along with the recording (at this instance you CAN play the whole work) and then you get a better idea of where your part fits in with the rest of the orchestra.

(I do not own this image)

During the rehearsal:

  • Especially if, like in this project, you have a pro sitting in front of you, try and copy how they play phrases and within the section. For example, if (like me) you are a string player, watch for the part of the bow the front of the section are playing in or ask the pro for help with fingering for a difficult passage. (This applies even if you just have a normal section principal as well of course! )
  • Copy in the bowings (or if a non-string player any other markings) as fast as you can. Hopefully the desks in front of you will pass it back, but if they don’t then take it upon yourself to copy in the bowings quickly in your break as no one likes to see bows going in the wrong direction in the concert.

Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra (I do not own this image)

Hopefully this has given you some ideas as how to deal with a concert if there aren’t many rehearsals. Apologies for this being so string heavy, I’m afraid I don’t have much authority on sitting in any other sections of the orchestra! I hope some of these tips are useful to you, whatever you play. Thanks for reading and I’m looking forward to seeing you all for my next post!

Grace Notes: Tackling a Nielsen Symphony

Last Wednesday I took part in a concert at St John’s Smith Square with the Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra (YMSO – We were playing a varied program including Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Nielsen. This was a very challenging program and I hadn’t played any of the pieces before.

We began the concert with Le Corsaire by Berlioz which is a concert overture  (which means there isn’t an opera attached) written between 1844 and 1851 (there were lots of revisions). It’s a very fast and exciting overture with lots of bright and blazing string passages, enhanced by brass chords. The main challenge of this was the speed and when I was practicing I had to gradually increase  the tempo in order to be able to play this at the same speed as everyone else!

The other piece in the first half was the 1st Tchaikovsky piano concerto with Vitaly Pisarenko (a Masters  student at the Royal College of Music). This is a gorgeous piece and has lots of beautiful tunes that both the orchestra and the soloist play. The main challenge with playing any concerto is adjusting to how the soloist wants to play it. After we had played it once though, I found that I got used to all of the hold backs and pushes forward so it became a joy to play rather than a stressful experience.

The second half of the concert was Nielsen’s 5th symphony. This symphony has  only two movements, but there are very clear sections throughout these which make it interesting to listen to.  The symphony isn’t typically ‘romantic’ and there aren’t many tunes that would pass the ‘old grey whistle test’ , but Nielsen manages to create an amazing atmosphere and uses the various sections of the orchestra, such as the undulating violas at the start creating mystery and tension.

Overall , the concert went well and the audience really enjoyed all three works. The piano concerto was the best received I think, but that was possibly because of its popularity. Personally I think the Berlioz was my favourite to play.

*I don’t own any of the videos above, neither are they recordings from the performance. I just wanted to share the music that we played as I enjoyed it so much.

I’m really looking forward to the next YMSO concert in November where we will  be playing Bruckner’s 8th symphony. I’ll see you next week for a blog on a concert I’m taking part in on Thursday with Orchestra Vitae. It’s at 7.30 pm on 17th October at St John’s Smith Square if you fancy coming. The program includes Shostakovich, Brahms and Montague (with an 80 piece choir and huge percussion section) so should be an incredible concert! Hope to see you there.