An Expressive Journey: Tuesday 18 November, National Library of Scotland
Host: Rosenna East
Cello: Eric de Wit
Spanish Guitar: Danielo Olivera
This was a joint National Library of Scotland/Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) event, where the SCO pick one event from their programme and explore the music they are going to be playing that night, by looking at the works from different angles. This event, in the Library, was looking at the SCO’s upcoming concert on Saturday 13 December in the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. Works that evening include pieces by Ravel and Saint-Saens and by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla.
This event was hosted by violinist and journalist Rosenna East, the former Sub-Principal Second Violin of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Her recent departure from SCO duties have been covered somewhat by just this month becoming the General Manager of Nevill Holt Opera. She has recorded podcasts for The Herald, SCO and the Edinburgh International Festival and since 2011 has been the radio commentator to BBC Scotland covering the St Magnus International Festival in Orkney. She regularly interviews SCO conductors in pre-concert talks – it’s therefore unsurprising at how effortlessly she hosted this event. She has many strings to that fantastically played bow.
Rosenna’s two guests for the evening were Eric de Wit and Danielo Olivera. Eric is a Dutch cellist who has been with the SCO since 2009. Danielo is a Spanish guitarist who has worked on many music projects involving flamenco as a singer, percussionist or with the guitar. He is also a song writer and teacher of flamenco music.
Rosenna opens the event by reading two poems The Cry and Every Song. There’s a slightly awkward moment when she then has to nod a few times at Danielo to give him the cue to break into a Spanish song, which wouldn’t be out of place as the soundtrack to an old style Spaghetti Western, despite the geography being inconsistent. Danielo shows great emotion in his singing and it’s a joy to listen to.
Rosenna then explains that the idea for the evening is to take one of the concert programmes and look at the themes, with the help of the some of the materials from the National Library. She then invites Eric to play us a few of the opening bars to Cello Concerto No 1 by Saint-Saens (at the December concert this will be played by Antonio Meneses).
I could have listened to the wonderful tones of the cello all evening, but it’s over far too soon. Eric tells us that the reason he loves this concerto is that normally you have to wait for 5 minutes to play but with this one it’s straight in. He describes the piece as having been written in 1872, quite a romantic piece and not long, only 20 minutes. The 3 movements are linked together rather than having the normal breaks in between each movement. This work became immediately popular, although he admits it’s not as hard to play as it sounds. He compares it to Schumann’s work which is much harder and more musically complicated. He reckons this piece would be do-able if you were studying it when you were 15. It is a balanced piece and the cello can be heard throughout – a fact Eric puts down to French aesthetics which are not very heavy or rich, and this suits the cello.
Saint-Saens was an exceptional figure who spoke several languages. He was interested in archaeology and was a child prodigy. At the age of 10, he performed 2 piano concertos in one evening from memory. He compares the different types of playing style which have developed over the years – e.g. holding the cello between the knees or balancing it on its spike, using steel or gut strings. This concerto is incredibly intimate and honest and Eric tells us that Saint-Saens was influenced by his interest in the history of music. He used to look at mural or paintings of places like Naples and Pompeii and he used old dance forms, confirming his pride in French culture.
There are some old papers in one of the cabinets outside the room which the National Library have looked out – these give instructions on how to dance a minuet (a bit more complicated than an eightsome reel or a waltz!) Eric treats us to an excerpt of the slow movement within the concerto which is a minuet – this is normally played on the violin but Eric indulges us by playing it down an octave for the cello.
We move on to discuss Manuel de Falla – one of Spain’s most important musicians of the first half of the 20th Century. His image was on Spain’s 1970 100-pesetas banknote. He was influence by Ravel and Debussy and was criticised for being too French, because of the impressionistic nature of his music. He was commissioned to write The Three-Cornerned Hat a ballet for which Picasso designed the set and the costumes (we are treated to some Picasso works in another glass case in the National Library).
De Falla also drew on the music from Andalusia – what we would know as flamenco music. Danielo explains that this music has its historical roots in the gitanos (Romani people of Spain). The music is used to describe many different emotions – from singing about lost loves to celebrations. The concert will include two of Falla’s pieces – the Three Cornered Hat being one, and El Amor Brujo Ballet Suite which will be sung by Maria Toledo. Danielo tells us that the gitanos have a specific style when they sing – it’s quite a guttural tone they have and that they learn how to sing like this down through the generations. He then sings us a lullaby called Nanna, although it is certainly not one that would put anybody to sleep.
Rosenna invites questions from the audience. These include:
- A question about the technicalities of singing flamenco – why is one vowel sung whilst singing lots of different notes? Danielo says this is because in a large gathering it helps the guitarist to work out what kind of key the next singer is going to be singing in and helps with the pitch.
- Which is the SCO members’ favourite venue? Rosenna deflects this question, first by saying she’s only going to answer that if the questioner tells her where they are form, then by inviting Eric to provide the answer. Ever the diplomat, Eric says all the big venues have their own styles but that he also likes to play in the small schools or churches that the SCO get to tour round. He adds that you need to be flexible in order to adapt the way you play to the acoustics and style of each room you are playing in. As Rosenna says, he could have had a career in the diplomatic service.
To finish off a delightful and interesting hour, we are treated to a final song from Danielo called Tientos por Tangos.
A more prominent career in radio beckons for Rosenna whose hosting skills showed a great deal of warmth and humour, and she expertly interacted with the two talented musicians. Hopefully she will make it onto TV so others can see what I’m getting at.