In this blog I wanted to share some videos of inspiring performances in different genres. What they have in common is a passionate and fearless sense of interpretation. The first is by Camille O’Sullivan:
The next is Robert Stephens’ acting, especially notably this most famous speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
And finally, something classical: Hvorostovsky’s performance of Bizet’s Toreador Song:
Although improvisation in concerts was common in baroque times, it’s more rare today. But – excitingly – Roger and I have three engagements at the beginning of April in London which include some live improvisation.
The reality of improvisation, of course, is that some kind of structure has been worked out in advance – even if it’s only a basic timing, key and mood. So, in our concerts we will be improvising for around three minutes and we have worked out a mood and a rough structure. One of us will hold a single note (D) while the other one improvises calm music. At the end of each group of phrases the roles will reverse.
Improvising on a string instrument is easier than you think. Essentially you need to choose a key, a mood, and a simple structure. For example, if you were playing a duet, you could decide you wanted lively invigorating music. You could choose to put the piece in D major, one player could play a D every two beats, and the other could improvise – mainly in arpeggio and scale patterns. If you wanted to elaborate you could have a middle section in B minor, which was slower and more gentle, and then repeat the opening section. Simlarly, to create a dance or waltz feel, chose a key, three beats in a bar, and short, simple phrases. As with everything, the more you practise, the easier it gets.
We’ve just given a concert at the 12th century Wadenhoe Church. The programme was of our own string duet arrangements plus the first performance of a piece I composed for solo cello called Morning Prelude.
The audience at Wadenhoe were very welcoming and feedback has inspired us to plan a recital programme – and cd – of English folk music ( plus some of our own pieces.)
We have often recorded music at Wadenhoe because it has ideal acoustics for chamber music and a beautiful sense of calm. The church is currently recovering from having had their roof vandalised, but it’s good to know that repair work is taking place and should be completed by the end of October.
I’ve recently been composing for cello and guitar with the guitarist and songwriter Spencer Price. Spencer had written six songs for guitar and voice and always envisaged them with cello parts. He contacted me to ask if I’d like to compose cello parts. A few months later we recorded the results with Carlos Parlato at El Tano Recording Studios in Peterborough. The songs have both pop and classical elements and the guitar and cello work beautifully together. Each part will be recorded separately – which is standard in the pop world – and the voice and drum parts still need to be added to complete the project
About the songs
Spencer’s songs are imaginative and gentle. The titles are: Mind’s Eye, The Old Man and the Sea, Death of a Salesman, I Still Believe, The Spy who came in from the Cold and Tears to Dry. I will include a link to the songs once the project is completed.
Music narrative is an essential part of great interpretation. By narrative I don’t mean something you could necessarily put into words, rather the performer having a clear idea of what the music is about and what it has to say.
Examples of Music Narrative
The example above – though crackly – is a superb example of performers who are completely at one with the mood of the music ( Massenet’s Elegie ) and convey its character wholeheartedly and beautifully.
Here are some relevant quotes from the great Russian actor Stanislavsky:
” Create your own method. Make up something that works for you. Keep breaking traditions, I beg you.”
“You’ll never see any two great actors approach a role in the same way.” “Play well or play badly, but play truly.”
The overall point is that if you come up with imaginative ideas that are true to you they will breathe life into the music – just as an actor hopes to breathe life into a character he portrays.
Opera has its own narrative
One of the easiest ways to respond to narrative is when playing opera arrangements, where there is a defined story. Our arrangements of Toreador Song and Habanera – from Bizet’s opera Carmen – are good examples of this.
Our filmed recording of La Cumparsita sheet music has just received 1000 ‘likes’ on You Tube. This great tango is immensely popular and our arrangement has now been viewed by more than 137,000 people.
We filmed the video in 2011 at Kirby Hall – a beautiful stately home owned by English Heritage.
About our arrangement of La Cumparsita
The setting for the film was a partly covered courtyard, which had caught the eye of one of our Lux Technical film crew who thought it would be especially suitable for the character of the music. Today our sheet music arrangement of La Cumparsita is the most popular piece we sell, and it’s also one of the least complicated to play. Our aim was to project the darkness and sensuality of the tango mood. I hope we have achieved some of this.
Warming up on the cello used to be quite a boring process for me. I would usually try a few scales and shifts or perhaps technical exercises. While there is nothing wrong with any of that, I now begin warming up by inventing a tune or playing by ear and then improvising – including improvising in thumb position. I have found this to be 100% more beneficial. For me it reinforces the pleasure of feeling at one with your instrument, of realising that you too can compose – and that interpretation is most effective if you make the music you are playing sound like it is your own.
If you want to practise a particular type of bowing when warming up on the cello , why not invent your own series of chords to try it with? If you want to practise a particular shift – say a major 6th – why not also invent a short piece based on that particular interval? In the past I’ve found that if you give a first performance there is a relaxing sense of freedom. None of the critics or audience know how it is meant to go, so you have a completely free hand as long as you look confident! Why not apply that same confidence to unaccompanied Bach?
Escaping confines within the classical
Have you ever been struck but how much more relaxed folk and pop musicians usually look in performance? Some of this is because the music is easier and more repetitive. But is it also because a lot of the music has been composed or arranged by the performers themselves? How wonderful it would be to be able to carry that sense of pleasure in performing into the classical world.
Our own improvisation
Roger and I have found that improvising and composing music definitely helps our arrangements and keeps creativity alive. You can hear some examples of our arrangements on our Moonlight and Music cd which you can buy by clicking the link below: https://www.fedorastrings.com/product-category/cd-sales/
Does style matter in unaccompanied Bach? This may seem an almost sacrilegious question, but I think strong feeling is far more important than style.
Apart from the fact that no one knows exactly what baroque style was, there is no such thing as perfect interpretation. Like Shakespeare – Bach is good enough to cope with any number of imaginative ideas.The key thing is to have creative ideas and project them strongly.
What makes a performance hold the attention?
There are so many wonderful performances on unaccompanied Bach around, and each one is different. Those using early instruments could be said to be more authentic – but what value is style if you don’t feel the music that way? Who says Bach would not have loved rubato and passion, and didn’t play like this himself? Listen to Casals’ performance of Bach and the idea of authenticity goes out of the window. Ultimately you can only play as you are and be guided by what is true to you.
Choosing cello strings is a tricky and expensive business. It’s so expensive, in fact, that it’s rare to able to afford to experiment much. All the more reason, then, to have unbiased feedback about strings from the start.
I can only speak from my own experience. For many years I used Jargar A and D strings. I was then advised to change Jargar for Larsen and the improvement was huge.For me, Larsen strings are more sensitive and responsive and more immediate in sound. Larsen soft soloist suits my cello well and I can truly recommend them.
I have always used Pirastro covered gut on my lower two strings. I love the feel of the strings under my fingers and I think the sound is warmer and more subtle than even the best steel. I am currently using Pirastro Eudoxa, which matches the Larsen strings well. However, my cello was made in 1855, so is not modern.
Do modern cellos need modern strings?
I have been told that modern cellos can only use modern strings. I have no idea if this is true, but it is certainly the current way of thinking and steel is easier to play on.
How temperamental is covered gut?
Covered gut strings are more responsive to temperature and slip out of tune more frequently. But the lower strings, being thicker, don’t slip that often and rarely break.
What sound do you want?
Not only does the choice of string depend on the cello you are playing on, it also depends on the type of sound you want. And it is all in proportion. So an expensive string may improve the tone, but will not hugely change the sound of the cello overall.