Events and Concerts

St Peter's, Shaldon St John's, Totnes

Bach: Ricercare á 6 from 'The Musical Offering' (Orch: Richard Gonski)

Britten: 4 Sea Interludes from the opera 'Peter Grimes'

Ligeti: Cello concerto
Soloist: Valerie Welbanks

Sibelius: Symphony no 5

TSO Concert Ticket
Adult Full 08-06-2024

TSO are delighted to be taking part in the 2024 COMA festival of contemporary music. We have been part of this annual festival for many years and we would like to express our deep appreciation to COMA for their inspiration and dedication to the promotion of contemporary music.

We will be performing two concerts - on Saturday, 9th March in St Peter’s, Shaldon and on Sunday, 1oth at St John's in Totnes. Both venues are in South Devon, the orchestra’s home for the past 25 years.

Our programme is all 20th century - or nearly. But - don't be deterred - the music is fabulous and you will love it - guaranteed!

A the core of the whole programme is colour - instrumental and ensemble colour used in a myriad ways. Each piece has its own unique pallette.

We open with J S Bach’s ‘Ricercare a 6’ from The Musical Offering orchestrated by our Music Director, Richard Gonski. Richard says: “ If Bach were alive today he would no doubt have a collection of polyphonic synthesisers at his disposal."

This arrangement is a nod in that direction, with the different instruments of the orchestra providing colour and definition by highlighting the fugal entries and counterpoint.

Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from the opera Peter Grimes follows, and after the interval, Valerie Welbanks, cellist from the Ligeti Quartet, appears as soloist in the Ligeti Cello concerto.

The performance will be preceded by a talk /demonstration presented by Valerie, Richard and the TSO on Ligeti and this concerto specifically, the aim being to familiarise our audience with some of the concepts, techniques and structures used by Ligeti in this piece.

We have found that these talks go a long way to making our audiences feel included and informed when they hear the performance and less alienated by the (contemporary) nature of the music.

The programme ends with Sibelius’ Symphony no 5.


Valerie Welbanks

Valerie Welbanks

Canadian-born Val Welbanks leads a busy chamber music career in London as the cellist of both the Marsyas Trio and Ligeti Quartet, with whom she has been playing for nearly fourteen years. With both groups, Val has accrued experience globally and built a reputation for thoughtful performances of contemporary music.

The Ligeti Quartet has held residencies at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and Goldsmiths University of London, as well as Nottingham High School. This year they are showcasing all of György Ligeti's string music for the centenary of his birth, and they are touring music by Anna Meredith to promote their latest CD. The Quartet has recorded for the Nonclassical and Mercury KX labels.

The Marsyas Trio is one of the rare flute-cello-piano ensembles - their repertoire ranges from the early Classical to the contemporary. With eighteen funding awards to their name, the Trio has been heading collaborative projects the most recent of which involves many new works by Michael Finnissy and a children’s radio play by Robin Haigh, narrated by Janey Godley and Ed Balls.

Val also regularly plays with the London Contemporary Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of London to record scores for film and television, and has recorded several discs with the Longbow Ensemble and GPlus Ensemble.

In 2016, Val completed her PhD thesis Foundations of Modern Cello Technique, codifying extended techniques for cello (Goldsmiths, University of London) under the supervision of composer Roger Redgate, and previously the late cellist Alexander Ivashkin. Her thesis has presently over 14,000 downloads, and is being used by composition teachers and students, as well as cellists interested in contemporary music, around the world.

György Ligeti (1923 – 2006) Concerto for cello and orchestra

Valerie Welbanks (cello soloist)

Ligeti, like many other Eastern European composers of the 20th century had a difficult and painful existence as a young adult, living through continuous periods of war and repression  -  bereavements of close family members and a lucky personal escape from the Nazis in the 2nd world war followed by communist rule in his native Hungary which was punctuated by the grinding greyness of commissars and committees who could make or break a young composer’s career on a whim.

Luckily for him (and for us!) Ligeti managed to escape Hungary in 1956 and made his way to Western Europe where he quickly found a place amongst the leading lights of the musical avant garde.

In the 60’s and 70’s there were a number of ‘goto’ imstrumentalists who were known for their willingness and indeed enthusiasm for avant garde works – Heinz Holliger on the oboe, Viktor Globokar on the Trombone, Severino Gazzeloni on the flute; Siegfried Palm fulfilled that role on the cello and numerous composers including Penderecki and Kagel wrote works specifically for him. Ligeti too – and in April 1967, the first performance of the cello concerto was given in Berlin.

If you are expecting a virtuosic upfront display by the solo cello with a suitably deferent orchestral accompaniment you will be disappointed. Not that the soloist doesn’t have some extremely difficult and challenging passages to navigate, but If anything, this work is an anti-concerto - it can even be played with an ensemble of soloists with the ‘solo’ cellist just one member of the group. In some ways the concerto as a form had come full circle by returning to its roots in the concerto grosso of the baroque where little groups of soloists would (musically) pop out of a larger ensemble and then return to the fold. This cello concerto is also quite short – about 16 minutes in total, with the first movement lasting about 6 minutes and the second movement about 10.

From the start, you can sense that this music is different, a reflection of the experimental and wonderfully creative explorations of a group that included not only Ligeti but also Penderecki, Lutoslawski and Xenakis to name but a few.

The two movements are very different even though they both begin with a single note that spans outwards like a fan to embrace nearby notes. In the first movement, the cello emerges gradually from silence with an E above middle C. Almost imperceptibly, the cello is joined by strings and then flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet and trombone. Other adjacent notes are introduced creating clusters of sound.

That’s pretty much it. So where is the music?

It is to be found in the incredible subtlety of tone colour that sustains the whole first movement which is played in near silence – instructions for ppppp, pppp, ppp and pp abound. String players are instructed to move continuously from playing near the bridge (a wiry kind of sound) to on the fingerboard (more muted); string harmonics, tremolandos and other techniques together with extensive textual instructions litter the score. Similar types of tone-colour techniques are ever present in the woodwind and brass parts too. The movement ends with a long passage of long notes for the solo cello and double bass.

It is a very beautiful and awe inspiring 5 – 6 minutes of delicate sound.

The second movement is an almost total contrast. Although it starts innocently enough, outbursts by the solo cello, groups of soloists (strings) and the whole ensemble dominate the movement. There is ‘dissonance’ everywhere.

To focus on this aspect is to miss the point. In Ligeti, like (most notably) Xenakis, that point is texture – the actual notes are less important. Techniques of one musician playing 13 notes to the beat while another plays 12 and a third 11 etc. is a common device in Ligeti’s music. He knew that it would be close to impossible for an accurate rendition to emerge – in fact, in response to a question about another piece (Ramifications for String Orchestra) he stated that ‘the error was built in to the music’. (Xenakis who was a mathematician and an architect, used statistical equations to compose much of his music in order to create a similar effect)

Many listeners then, and now, find these ideas outrageous, ridiculous and ‘not music’. Here is not the place to contest that view. But – at least one should understand what these composers were trying to achieve.

There are many parameters that make up a musical sound and composition – pitch, volume,  duration, (rhythm ) envelope, harmonic content and the cumulative effect of sound when combined both horizontally (as in a theme or melody) and vertically (as in harmony).

At different points in musical history, different parameters have been important and others less so. In the baroque, pitch and duration were paramount, orchestration was not. For example, the Bach Ricercare which opens tonight’s programme could be played by a string sextet or a full symphony orchestra – the essence of the piece remains in both instances. In Mozart, one wouldn’t dream of re-orchestrating one of his symphonies.

In the 20th century, percussion and orchestral colour came to the fore; then absolute pitch, rhythm and duration were added with the serialists, (eg: Webern) and in the 60’s and 70’s textural music became the focus – minimalism as in Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, but also with Ligeti and the other composers mentioned earlier, albeit in a non-tonal environment.

Here the emphasis is on a tapestry of sound where strong thematic (melodic) material often recedes into the background and is replaced by a texture, or a sonic environment which creates atmosphere, energetic flux and effect. In this context, the quote about ‘the error is built in’ begins to make sense as the inaccuracy is part of the textural effect.

Even though it might not be aurally obvious, the textures are incredibly carefully and beautifully crafted. Drama and dramatic effect – a hugely important element of all Ligeti’s music – and humour are ever present.

Unsurprisingly, Ligeti’s music was used extensively in film, most notably in Kubrick’s ‘2001, A Space Odyssey’. It is striking how audiences will accept this kind of sonic exploration in a film without complaint, but find it challenging in a concert environment.

The movement ends with a solo cadenza on the cello, finally subsiding to the silence with which the concerto began.

J S Bach: Ricercare á 6 from 'The Musical Offering' (arr. Richard Gonski)

(ricercare, (Italian: “to seek out”) musical composition for instruments in which one or more themes are developed through melodic imitation;)

Bach used this term to describe two pieces from ‘The Musical Offering’, one of which is the fugue we are performing tonight.

A fugue is a musical form of which Bach is the undisputed master. It consists of a single theme which is introduced again and again, each time by a different voice. So a four part fugue would have an initial statement of the theme, with three further entrances following sequentially. (In this fugue, there are six voices, so six entries in the first episode)

As each new voice enters, the previous voice continues with a counter-theme, which with Bach always flows seamlessly onwards, complementing the new entry of the next voice perfectly.

These blocks of entries or ‘episodes’ as they are called are the fenceposts of the fugal structure. Linking them are ‘Interludes’, music usually made up of small motives from the main theme. The interludes can be very different from each other in texture and atmosphere, and this fugue is particularly varied in this respect. Imagine that the episodes are home, and the interludes are journeys to another place, each of them with its own unique sonic environment.

A fugue can have any number of episodes and interludes and usually ends with a final statement of the theme by one of the voices.

Listening to a fugue is a unique musical challenge – one is being asked to listen and aurally acknowledge the appearance of the main theme whenever it appears; listen to the counter-theme too; and appreciate the skill with which the different contrapuntal lines are developed and interact with one another as the music progresses.

This is the theme of the Ricercare á 6 fugue – a perfectly balanced musical phrase in every respect.

Fugue theme

You can see from the score above how the chromatic descent from the end of Bar 3 fills up the space created by the first five notes.

And the counter theme which looks like this:

Counter Theme

One wonderful aspect of Bach’s fugues is that you can play them on any instrument whose register fits the part – a string quartet or a church organ, they all work beautifully.

Tonight we are using a full orchestra. The strings carry the body of the fugue, while the woodwinds and brass colour the thematic material, highlighting the themes and thematic fragments that make up the whole.

The following history of the Musical offering is from Wikipedia:

The collection (the works that make up the Musical Offering) has its roots in a meeting between Bach and Frederick II on May 7, 1747. The meeting, taking place at the king's residence in Potsdam, came about because Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel was employed there as court musician. Frederick wanted to show the elder Bach a novelty, the fortepiano, which had been invented some years earlier. The king owned several of the experimental instruments being developed by Gottfried Silbermann.[2] During his anticipated visit to Frederick's palace in Potsdam, Bach, who was well known for his skill at improvising, received from Frederick a long and complex musical theme on which to improvise a three-voice fugue. He did so, but Frederick then challenged him to improvise a six-voice fugue on the same theme. Bach answered that he would need to work the score and send it to the king afterwards. He then returned to Leipzig to write out the Thema Regium ("theme of the king").”

Sibelius: Symphony no 5

Tempo molto moderato – Allegro moderato – Presto
Andante mosso quasi allegretto
Allegro molto

Sibelius's Fifth Symphony famously went through three separate versions, and three separate premières, before it reached the form in which we now know it. The symphony occupied Sibelius from his first thoughts in 1912 until the final version of 1919, which emerged only after Sibelius had expended great energy wrestling with his material.  

The outbreak of war in August 1914 immediately deprived Sibelius of most of the income from his own music. Russia had not signed the Berne Convention on Copyright and since Sibelius was a Russian citizen his German publisher Breitkopf and Härtel could send him no royalties, which provoked another financial crisis. In this desperate situation Sibelius's ideas for the new symphony were put aside for various small scale works, written in a deliberate attempt to earn some money. But the symphony remained at the back of his mind "In deep mire again, but I already begin to see dimly the mountain I shall certainly ascend … God opens His door and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony"

On 21 April 1915 the sight of sixteen swans in flight fired the composer's imagination, he noted in his diary:

“Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. Once of my greatest experiences! Lord God, that beauty. They circled over me for along time. Disappearing into the solar haze like a gleaning silver ribbon. Their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes but without tremolo. The swan call closer to the trumpet … Nature mysticism and life's Angst! The Fifth Symphony's finale-theme. Legato in the trumpets … That this should have happened to me who have so long been an outsider.”

Clearly Sibelius had thought of the great swinging theme which dominates the finale. He sifted through his ideas and organised those which form the symphony (most of the remaining sketches went towards the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies)  

It's as if God the Father had thrown down the tiles of a mosaic from heaven's floor and asked me to determine what kind of picture it was. Maybe a good definition of composing. Maybe not. How would I know?

The stimulus to complete the score came from celebrations planned for the composer's fiftieth birthday, where the new symphony was intended as the final work in a concert on 8 December 1915. Sibelius barely completed the score by the beginning of December.

The symphony as heard in that concert was in four separate movements, rather than the three known today, with different orchestration and a different layout. Sibelius quickly became dissatisfied with the whole work, feeling that he had rushed the completion to meet the concert deadline. (This original version was recently permitted a single recording and anyone interested can investigate just how much the 1915 and 1919 version are separate works).

Sibelius reworked the symphony under the pressure of another birthday concert the following year. Hardly any material from this intermediate version survives but in it Sibelius linked the original first and second movements. Sibelius lost confidence in this version as well, but was unwilling to commit the effort needed to rework the symphony again. 

After the Russian Revolutions of 1917, Finland achieved formal independence in December 1917, though the country was soon plunged into civil war. Sibelius' home was searched and briefly occupied, forcing him to seek sanctuary in Helsinki. Under these circumstances work on the symphony was intermittent. Eventually Sibelius settled on keeping the three movement layout and from February 1919 worked in earnest completing the work in April. Sibelius later claimed that at the point where he laid down his pen, a flight of twelve white swans settled on the lake and then circled his home before flying away. He directed the première of the final, only, version of the symphony on 24 November 1919 in Helsinki to triumphant acclaim.

The form Sibelius finally achieved is breathtakingly simple; an opening movement which begins slowly and becomes gradually faster, an intermezzo and a finale which begins quickly and gradually becomes slower.

The first movement opens with two contrasted ideas, a rising horn call and a faster motif for flute. The flute idea is passed to oboe, clarinet, oboe and back to flute, and the strings take up a rocking theme based on repeated pairs of long-short notes. Trumpets echo the flute and the violins fall into a characteristic Sibelian accompaniment, scurrying quavers, on the edge of silence, which give propulsion to the slower music in the woodwind. This is built to two widely spaced climaxes and at the point where the bassoon enters with fragments of the flute motif, Sibelius begins the process of transforming the second recapitulation into material from the original scherzo. Long trills increase the tension and the violins’ rising melody leads gradually into a long acceleration based on their earlier rocking theme. As the fast section bursts forth fragments on the horns refer back to the opening and are built to a climax which fades and is rebuilt as thundering quavers carry the music surging to a close.

The slow movement is deceptively simple, a pizzicato theme in the violins, echoed by flutes over horns and trumpets, is the basis for a series of variations, strings switching between pizzicato and arco as the tension gradually increases and fades until a central trio section, a progression in basses and low brass which underlies the second climax later emerges transformed as the main theme of the finale. Gradually the music unwinds until it simply evaporates.

The Finale opens with a scurrying figure for violins answered by flute and horns. The answering phrase is gradually built into the great swinging theme on horns, the "Swan Hymn beyond compare", underpinned by basses. The ensuing flute theme is supported by violin tremolos and the music slows almost to stillness, trumpets recall the Swan Hymn and a pattern of off-beat notes in the basses begin to propel the music to its final heroic statement and the whole orchestra plays six abrupt widely separated final chords.

Britten: Four Sea Interludes from the opera 'Peter Grimes'

Dawn / Sunday Morning / Moonlight / The Storm

Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes marked the renaissance of the English operatic tradition. It came as a result of a commission from the Koussevitsky Foundation and was first performed at Sadlers Wells Theatre, on 7 June 1945. This was a gala occasion for, not only was this the first new opera heard in London for many years, but it also celebrated the re-opening of the theatre after five years of wartime closure. The opera was greeted with enthusiastic critical acclaim and the New York Times described the occasion as "a milestone in the history of British music". Within a short time the opera received more than one hundred performances in the major opera houses of Europe and at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. It now has a firm place in the repertoire of opera houses worldwide.

Britten used as his source George Crabbe's The Borough, a story that appealed strongly to his humanity and compassion. It told of the fisherman Peter Grimes, turned into a hard villain by the misunderstandings of his neighbours, and the deaths of two of his apprentices through ill-treatment. In this theme Britten saw man's struggle against a narrow society and a conflict between the individual and the unreasoning masses. However, Montagu Slater's libretto changed the thrust of the story to emphasize Grimes' innocence, and his helplessness against the fury of the village folk and inevitable disaster. Although he is declared innocent, suspicions still remain in the minds of his neighbours and when the mob descends upon his hut he flees to sea in his boat and never returns.

Peter Grimes retains the well tried formula of 'numbers', with set pieces of arias, quartets, choruses, and recitatives, and while the voice is supreme, the orchestra has a major part to play in creating atmosphere. This is very true of the six orchestral interludes of which four have become a popular independent entity in concert programmes. Dawn, occurring between the Prologue and the beginning of Act I., may suggest Debussy's La Mer, but inescapably it paints a picture of the North Sea and the grey sky seen from the little fishing village. Violins and flutes suggest the bleak early morning scene with cries of gulls, while harp and clarinet arpeggios picture the wind rippling the surface of the water, and a quiet, idyllic moment brings the rise of the sun over the water.

Sunday Morning leads into Act II. This is a depiction of the quiet village street as church bells ring. These are not real bells, however, but the tolling of four horns, two of them ringing out minor thirds, against major thirds from the other two. High octaves from the woodwind suggest the glitter of sunlight on the waves, of which Ellen Orford, with whom Grimes is in love, sings as the curtain rises. Introducing Act III is a description of the moonlight over the sea and the Borough in an impressionistic nocturnal portrait punctuated by the sounds of revellers at a barn dance in the village hall. Syncopated ferocity marks the last of these four interludes as the storm rises to dominate the second scene of Act I. Snarling trumpets and trombones, and angry horns describe the sea in ferment, but there is an original passage when stillness reigns in the middle of the tempest and the whole orchestra plays an agitated pianissimo ostinato, before the elements rage once more. The Four Interludes received their première as an independent orchestral work at a Cheltenham Festival concert on 13 June 1945, when the composer conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Programme notes provided by John Dalton, September 2008