Something New: Stuff You Missed in History Class Podcast

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I seem to have a lot of filler time, whether it is commuting to and from work, waiting around or when I am too lazy to read or play games. Some people like to sit quietly with their thoughts but I am not one of those. I need to fill the void with noise, preferably entertaining and informative in nature, that takes me the least possible effort to engage in. This is where podcasts come in!

Stuff you Missed in History Class has become one of my favourites. It is a podcast from the How Stuff Works site and it discusses various historical topics (no surprise there!) that you may or may not have learned about in school, college or just in your own day to day life. You can download each episode onto your portable devices or just listen to them online. I prefer to use iCatcher so I can make sure that I don’t miss any.

Stuff You Missed in History Class

Stuff You Missed in History Class

Each episode is presented by Sarah Dowdey and Deblina Chakraborty. They research each one and then tell the story of the event/person over the course of the podcast. They do a really great job; they speak clearly and concisely and are very easy to understand and to listen to. It also seems that they really like doing this job and if they are passionate about a topic they will not hesitate to say so, which is fantastic.

The episodes are also a really good length at about 20-40 minutes long each. This is great if you are looking for something to get you from A to B or to entertain you while queuing or waiting. They also are updated often enough that you can save them for a longer trip or you can go through the extensive back catalogue, all the way back to Fact or Fiction? History Stuff for the History Buff days.

But the real draw for me is the sheer breadth of the topics that they detail. I was worried when I initially subscribed to it that as the podcast based in the US they would be very America-centric but this is not the case at all. They draw their topics from a wide range of times and countries, focusing on people, places, events or groups. History commentary has sometimes been criticised for being too focused on the dominant social groups and their version of events. Stuff you Missed in History Class tried to avoid this by including plenty of topics on women’s, LGBT, and black history for example. They have also produced episodes on Asian and African history which I would not have known about ordinarily. They even have released episodes which dealt with Irish history which was great to hear included and brought to a wider audience. Some of my favourite episodes are as follows:

  • The Strangest Games: The 1900 Paris Olympics
  • What happened to the lost colony at Roanoak
  • Freya of Arabia
  • Belle Starr
  • From Diplomacy to Black Diaries: Rodger Casement

Saying that these are all episodes that are fairly recent as I really enjoy each episode and it is hard to keep favourites.

What is also really great is that Sarah and Deblina don’t just read off the main narrative without question. In cases such as Belle Starr, Ma Barker and Ned Kelly they explain some of the alternative opinions about their lives and discussed the probability of those facts being true and where myths may have come from if they have permeated popular discourse. This really sets this podcast apart and reminds you of the fallibility and bias of historians and historical narratives. It also adds new elements to stories that you may already be familiar with and adds a fresh perspective which is always very interesting.

The level of audience participation is also one of the best that I have heard on any podcast. They maintain an active blog, facebook, twitter, and pinterest accounts. Here Sarah and Deblina link with listeners, see what they thought and take suggestions for episodes (which they do take up sometimes!). At the end of each episode they also read out and respond to listener mail, which sometimes includes postcards that were sent to them from locations that they covered. They even now have a new movie club in association with Netflix where they match up movies that you can watch with the topic of that week’s podcast.

I must give a warning though, listening to this podcast can be expensive! Yes the podcast itself is free, but it will give you plenty of ideas for holidays and new hobbies that you will not be able to resist. In fact after hearing the episode on King Ludwig, I booked a holiday to Germany and visited Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenswangau. There was also an episode on book collecting and I had to try very hard to resist starting my own one.

So if you love history and would like something different to listen to, I highly recommend Stuff You Miss in History Class.

Must See: Web Weekly, “Mike Senna, Wall·E” by Emer

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Although Disney Pixar has a habit of ripping your heart out and stomping on it, e.g. the last ten minutes of Toy Story 3 or the first ten minutes of Up, we find ourselves braving the possible tears and we sit ourselves down to watch every new release they have to offer. It is clear that much heart goes into creating these films. One film in particular has showcased Pixar’s incredible storytelling abilities and it is their 2008 creation WALL·E. At the core, is a futuristic commentary on very real environmental issues. I know it doesn’t exactly sound heart warming, but this commentary all occurs through the story of one curious little robot’s discovery of friendship. WALL·E does have its moments of heartbreak, and if you have seen the film, you probably would rather not be reminded of these. However, there are many more reasons for tears throughout the film, be it for happy reasons or for the fact that it is possibly one of the cutest things you will ever see.
Wall-E et Eve

This brings the post to the “Must See: Web Weekly”. Mike Senna is a programmer and hobbyist from California, well known for an R2-D2 replica he made back in 2003. More recently he tackled the concept of creating WALL·E from scratch. In the video you can see his replica in its final stages. You can see that the replica is a product of hard work and genuine love for the craft, not unlike the Pixar films themselves. Also, one would be hard pressed not to “squee” as soon as they see the replica move about and start to make sounds. I’ll admit I made a few inhuman sounds myself, it’s just too cute!

Wall E Video url:

You can also read about the WALL·E replica’s adventures in the outside world on his blog at: http://sennaswalle.blogspot.ie/

More WALL·E replica  progress videos and indeed, many of the R2-D2 replica, can be viewed on Mike Senna’s Youtube channel at:
http://www.youtube.com/user/TheMikeSenna

You can find Emer on Twitter @Commander_Emu.

Guest Post by Niall K – The Annual Edinburgh Festival 2012.

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I have recently returned from a quick visit to Edinburgh, where I found myself transported to a world of colour, taste and sound. The annual Edinburgh festival was in full swing and I was among thousands of visitors and performers who have descended upon this historic, cultural and stunning city.  At this time of year the entire city is transformed into a canvas for international art and performance. The heart of the festival is the ancient royal mile which has been turned into an open air venue with street performers from North bridge to the Cathedral, and has successfully turned this historic street into a vibrant expression of international performing art. It provides one of the greatest backdrops you could imagine. It should be noted however, that the festival is not confined to the Old town, but is spread across the entire city. There are venues everywhere, in every imaginable place, from churches to tents set up in beautiful parks and there really is something for everyone, no matter what your style or taste is.

Edinburgh Festival

Edinburgh Festival

Dates

The festival is actually broken into two, and takes part over the entire month of August.  There is the Fringe festival which takes part from the 3rd to the 27th of August and the Edinburgh International festival which takes part from the 8th of August to the 2nd of September. Both of which have very different things to offer in terms of culture and entertainment.Unfortunately I was only there for the fringe, and had left before the International Festival kicked off, but looking at the brochure it looks as if I will soon be returning.

Programme Highlights

Edinburgh Festival Stage Performance

Edinburgh Festival Stage Performance

There really is something for everyone at the Festival, performances range from comedy to music and dance. Some of the highlights for me included, the wide range of fantastic stand up comedians. They are there at every level from beginners to the major names, however I feel it is better go see the comedians who are starting off, to give them some support and I haven’t been disappointed yet. In fact most of the major names we have today in comedy were discovered at the Edinburgh festival, so you never know who you will see.  There was also an amazing African dance troupe, who really were spell binding and gathered a huge crowed of enthusiastic onlookers, a beautiful electric string quartet and a stage version of Allo Allo, which even though was amateur performance still made people chuckle. One of the best amateur performances I enjoyed was the dramatic reading of some of the works of Edgar Allen Poe which was exceptionally well done, the performers were passionate and dramatic. When you take into account the historic backdrop of the ancient city we were in it almost transported you back to that time.  It really stood out and would highly recommend it. These were just my highlights, and there were many many more acts available.

Cost

There is a cover charge for most of the shows, but it is usually relatively low and in my opinion can be worth it.  However there is a lot of excellent free stuff on offer as well, and it pays to keep an eye out for the promoters who are handing out free tickets tickets and leaflets. Also another one of the great things I found about the festival was that if you were finding it difficult to make up your mind on which of the hundreds of performances to go to, the Royal Mile was dotted with small stages on which each act gets a chance to perform for a short time, which gives you the chance to get a taste for what is on offer.

Scottish Heritage

Even though the festival really offers a great taste of international culture, you are in the capital city of one of the proudest nations on earth, Scotland, and Scottish heritage is everywhere, which I absolutely loved. Everywhere you go, the smells and sounds of Scotland reverberate around the historic fabric of the city.  There are pipers at every corner blasting out traditional tunes, and street vendors selling traditional Scottish fare, the smells of which linger in the air and make you constantly hungry.  I have to say, sitting on the steps of an ancient cathedral while a piper blasts amazing grace really made me feel a little bit emotional,  you can almost sense the history of the city coming alive.

Military Tattoo

Military Tattoo

Military Tattoo

Above everything else at the festival, from the street performers, to the big name comedy acts, nothing comes close to the spectacle of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. If you are a fan of culture then this is a must see for you.  Held every year during the festival up on the castle esplanade, the tattoo is a display of music, dance and history performed by members of the armed forces from not the commonwealth and across the globe. It is set against the backdrop of the amazing, historic Edinburgh castle which plays a huge part in the performance. To me was the starring lady with the visual projections and light shows displayed on its historic walls during the show.  It also provides the backdrop for the fireworks displays.  Every year the Tattoo carries a different theme, so it changes every year.  On this occasion it was unsurprisingly, a tribute to the Queen on her Diamond Jubilee, but also charted Scotland’s contributions to the world, in this the year of creative Scotland.  The entire event kicked off with a fanfare from the castle ramparts, the roar of fighter jet flying over head and then the boom of the castles cannons, and finished with the thousands of spectators linking hands and singing Auld Lange Syne while fireworks rise from the castle walls, an amazing finale.

Edinburgh Castle -Gotham display

Edinburgh Castle -Gotham display

The highlights of the Tattoo for me were, the guards of King Harold V of Norway, who put on a spectacular display of military precision and choreography, it is something that always amazes me how they are able to move in such perfect harmony.  We were also treated to a display of amazing drumming from a Swiss military band who apparently were drumming to represent binary code, and Scotland’s contribution to technology, I don’t know alot about binary code but I know they were talented guys and left the audience spellbound.  The United States military band who played the theme tunes from famous super heroes shows was a lot of fun. They played such favourites as Batman, Superman and Banana Man all the while images of the shows flashed up on the castle walls, my favourite being Gotham City projection. I’m sure it was a first for Edinburgh castle!  I believe everyone’s favourite was the Australian military band and their rendition of Kylie Minnogue. quite a peculiar few moments,  but it sent such a great vibe across the stands, with everyone clapping and singing along.  Next it was the turn  of the British military bands and their tribute to the coronation, my favourite part of this spectacle was their rendition of one of my favorite pieces of music “Zadok the Priest” which was truly inspiring. They also played such traditional songs as Rule Britannia etc, and really put on a good show.

Next, Scottish pipers marched back into the arena, playing all the famous Scottish tunes and they really took over the whole place it was a true spectacle of pipes and drums, a very Scottish moment.  Many people dislike the bag pipe but I have a deep love for its sound, so I was in heaven.  All of this was then followed by the national anthem and then one of the most stunning fireworks displays that I have ever seen over the castle to the tune of “Diamonds are Forever”  in honour of the Diamond Jubilee.
After this the loan piper played high on the castle walls as a tribute to the fallen soldiers, a truly moving piece and the entire crowd was so silent. After this the event closed with Auld Lange Syne. and yet more fireworks.

Conclusion

I still get tingles when I remember that evening, every part of it was wonderfully put together and moving. It was a fantastic culture smash with the traditions of many countries all coming together to provide an inspiring evening of entertainment, which has left a lasting memory with me. So if you do visit Edinburgh during the month of August, make sure you secure your tickets to the Edinburgh Tattoo for an unforgettable evening, of entertainment, as well as enjoying the many many events and shows on display across this amazing city.  A trip to the Edinburgh festival is not something that will be regret.

I really hope that you have enjoyed reading this piece, as much as i have enjoyed writing it. To finish I will leave you with this most traditional of Scots poems, to give you a taste of what Scottish culture and tradition has to offer.

Address To A Haggis

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang’s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut ye up wi’ ready slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, they strech an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve,
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
‘Bethankit!’ hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ bluidy flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll make it whissle;
An’ legs, an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thrissle.

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o ‘fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!

Robert Burns

Something New: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

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Warning: There will be some spoilers below.

Shortly after I finished the Hunger Games Trilogy I wandered through Easons on O’Connell Street, all lonely and forlorn. I had no more books to read. I found myself wandering over to the pile of Hunger Games books which Easons had labelled as Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic fiction (can’t remember the exact title but it was something like that). Thinking about this I trugged home wishing that I could erase the Hunger Games and Fallout games from my head so I could relive the joy of discovering these new and exciting worlds again. Later that evening I moaned to my trusty companion who said that I should read Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood. So, being eager to returned to a world post-disaster I thought I would give it a go.

Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake

The story opens with a character called Snowman, who seems to be the only human left after society has collapsed after a mysterious disaster. He is a hermit and his only contact with other sentient beings is either through fighting off genetically modified creatures like pigoons, rakunks and wolvogs and by meeting the Crakers, who are genetically modified humans. We learn what happened to the world through a series of flashbacks to his previous life when he was Jimmy. It is through the story of Jimmy that we learn what the world was like before the disaster and what led to the downfall of the world as Snowman knew it.

There are some really strong themes in the book which I think really make this such a good story. I have picked my favourite ones for discussion:

Privilege and Poverty
One of the most striking themes in the book is the societal inequality and the gulf between those with privilege and those confined to poverty. The people with commercially valuable skills such as scientists and advertising experts live in corporate compounds which are developed and maintained by the companies that they work for. They have very comfortable lives with high wages and access to some of the best education, leisure and healthcare facilities that this future had to offer.

Everyone else lived in the pleeblands. These were dangerous communities were poverty was rife and opportunities were fewer. Crime was a reality for these residents and many turned to it to stay afloat. They did not have the comforts or stability that the compounds offered.

However the pleeblands boasted a type of freedom that the compounds did not have. In the compounds their standard of living are directly linked to their employment and their value as developers of commercial product. They are totally sheltered and cocooned and no one is allowed to leave the compounds without strict permission. The compounds are heavily monitored by security and the resident’s freedoms were severely limited. Atwood describes how Jimmy overhears adults reminiscing about when they could travel when they pleased and scarily “when voting mattered”.

It was to the pleeblands that compound residences escaped to when they became disillusioned with the system. It was in the pleeblands where the revolutionary activities took place. Atwood showed that no place has it all and once you scrat the surface of a place like the compounds the underneath can be quite unnerving.

Overall the people I found myself feeling sorry for the most were the people living in neither the pleeblands or the compounds. They were the people who lived in isolated areas and were running out of food. These people had to sell their children so they could survive. This is heart breaking especially as this is not unheard of in our world today. This was bleak poverty and a tough decision for parents to make, selling one child to save the others.

Desolation of the environment.
Even in today’s world, debate about the environment and how best we can mange it balanced with economic interests is ongoing. Atwood describes a world where it is too late for those debates and the environment is horribly damaged. Jimmy, who has no previous knowledge of the world before, overhears his mother talking about how “everything was ruined” and her grandfather’s orchard which was destroyed by drought and the beaches consumed by coastal erosion.

Economic interests have won out to the detriment of the planet. Animal testing is commonplace with animals even being used as organ carriers. Many species have been wiped out and illnesses are invented just so companies can sell cures.

After the event the environment reclaims its space. It starts to breakdown human civilisation and take back its domain. All the human ingenuity and technology did not matter and nature will win out.

It is a message that we should take heed of before it get too late. In particular I liked the inclusion of the warning about unproven unscientific medicine and its devastating impact on endangered species. Disdain for “credulous morons who thought that eating its horn would give them a boner” is quoted from the book and is an important message as animals today are being slaughtered to the point of extinction, for quack alt-med products.

Isolation and what it does to the mind
Aside from the large overall discussions about the environment and of poverty vs privilege, some of the smaller, more personal themes were the ones that really stuck with me after I finished the book.

One of those was the reality of isolation and what it can do to the human mind. We are social creatures and the lack of human contact can negatively affect a person’s mental health. Snowman, who we meet at the start of the book, is pretty much alone. All he has is the Crakers, who he finds odd, and his memories. He spends his time trying to stay alive, imaging that Oryx is taking to him and cursing Crake for leaving him all alone. He repeats words to himself, trying to prevent their loss from the world and his mind.

Readers can really feel his sense of isolation and his attempts to cling onto his mental capacity. He craves human (non-genetically modified) attention and feels hopeless and depressed. Instead of feeling grateful that he is left alive he struggles with it and sees it as a curse rather than a blessing. It is very easy to sense his frustration and yet marvel at his survivor’s nature helping him to keep on going. Atwood did a very good job at creating this sense of isolation and Snowman is a brilliant conduit for these feelings.

Tough childhood
This world is not a particularly child friendly one. Extreme poverty, uncertain futures and neglect all still influence the lives of children despite all the technological advances.

The most extreme example of a tough childhood is that of Oryx. Sold by her impoverished mother to a business man who used child labour, she left home to work selling flowers on the street. This then turned into bribing paedophiles to ensure the business man’s silence. After his murder she was then sold to child pornography production company. At times this narrative was really difficult and disturbing to read. The most unsettling thing for me about this storyline was how Oryx herself dealt with it. She did not want to discuss it with Jimmy and when she did she spoke about it like it was a normal, inconsequential part of her life. She spoke fondly of the camera man who taught her English and how the films that they made broke up the monotony of her boring days. In the end she was rescued from a garage and she defended the man arrested, saying that he just wanted to save her and that he gave her an education. For her this was just her life and part of her past. The incidents were normalised for her and she did not feel the same sense of horror as Jimmy and undoubtedly the reader felt.

For Jimmy and Crake, the children of the compounds, their childhoods were difficult but in different ways. As mentioned before living in the compounds was dependant on being a part of the corporation plan. This often meant parents working long hours, being distant or absent for parts of their children’s lives. Under this environment of parental neglect Jimmy and Crake filled their time playing disturbing video games and watching vile programmes involving murder, pornography and animal torture.

Jimmy’s home life for me seemed really, well, sad. Yes he was comfortable in financial terms, he lived in the compounds, got a good education and had access to leisure activities but his home life was really lacking. His Dad, a top scientist, was often busy and forgot Jimmy’s birthday. As he was an only-child this should not have been too difficult to remember. His mother was struggling with personal issues and because of this she neglected Jimmy and sometimes was outright abusive. In fact when she leaves home she takes with her the most important thing in Jimmy’s life, his pet Killer.

How Atwood describes Jimmy’s reaction to his mother leaving is fantastic. He hates her for leaving and taking killer. Yet despite this when he still “yearned” for her.  He continued to worry about her and what type of danger that she might be in. She sent him postcards and he felt like he disappointed her and he wanted a chance to make her happy. This contradiction of feelings may seem a bit strange to some people. She was horrible to him so why does he still care for her? The reason is, that she is his mother and it is so hard to break that bond. I worked for a time in children’s services and time and time again children would maintain loyalty to their parents even if the parents had put them through hell. I am really glad that Atwood  portrayed this through this relationship as the more people understand how common this contradiction is, the more we can understand children who may be feeling these conflicting emotions and acting out because of them.

Disdain for the Arts
In the book the boys graduate and go onto college, Crake with his scientific mind goes to the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute while Jimmy goes to Martha Graham, an arts college. The Watson-Crick Institute is a well funded, shiny campus with state of the art facilities. Martha Graham on the other-hand, is crumbling and neglected. The books in the library are rotting and the bright minds are staying away. The money followed where money could be generated. The arts were not seen as worth funding as they were no longer particularly wealth generating.

During these times of austerity and cut-backs this is a debate which is heating up in many countries at the moment. Where should precious funds go? In Ireland at the moment arts funding is being cut and there is talks of merging cultural bodies to save money. On the other hand money is being thrown at tech companies and start ups as they are seen as eventual money makers. Is this right however? What exactly should be sacrificed? Can heritage and the arts be considered as valuable as science and technology? These are questions that are being debated right now. In the world of Oryx and Crake however it had already been decided, to the apparent detriment of society.

What makes a human?
We learn that Snowman is not totally alone. He has neighbours called the Crakers who are genetically modified humans. They were created to try and take all the so-called bad things from human nature. For example they eat just for nutrition and have sex just for reproduction.

Snowman does not take to them mostly because they are without imperfection. He describes them as “they’re placid, like animated statues”.  They are not aware of some basic things that humans take for granted and seem like they are from another world. Snowman uses the example of toast and asks how he would explain it to them. In these ways the Crakers do not seem human. Them seem to lack some of the traits that would be considered to determine humanity.

But as the story progressed the Crakers displayed traits that made them seem more human. The were curious about the world that they lived in and where they came from. They question Snowman about this and show a great sense of wonder. To Snowman this is ironic as they start to build a god like image of Crake and Crake really hated the idea of god. The Crakers also try to help Snowman when he decided to go on a journey and they feel a sense of loyalty to him and want to protect him.

This shows that the idea of a human being is not as clear cut as it may seem. What makes a person, human is one of those questions that has been discussed since discussion was invented and I do quite like the way it it portrayed in this story.

Importance of Conflict
From a story telling point of view this novel really brought home for me the importance of conflict in story telling. If it was just a story about the happy, peaceful Crakers and Snowman talking to himself in a tree, it would be very boring. To be honest when I started reading the book I wasn’t that taken with it and found it a bit dull. But by introducing the back stories of the characters, the contradictions in society and by displaying the hypocrisies of human nature it made the story take off and it became quite exciting.

Conclusion
Oryx and Crake was a great read and I would recommend it.  As mentioned above, I did find it quite slow to start and all the different characters quite confusing. But as the story developed it became compelling reading and I could not put it down (even though I was meant to be studying for a First Aid exam). At times it was difficult to read, especially the sections dealing with Oyrx’s past. But I applaud Margaret Atwood from not shying away from the topic and writing about it in an honest, clear way. This is the first Margaret Atwood book that I have read but it will not be the last.

Something Old: Part 2 Emo Court Gardens

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For part one which describes the history of the estate and the house please visit here.

Although I have been visiting Emo Court for years I have only actually been inside the house once. The gardens of the estate are the main thing that keeps bringing me back. First laid out in the 18th century the 55 acres of formal lawns, lake and woodland has been lovingly restored and maintained. The gardens are a favourite locally for walking and relaxing and unsurprisingly as a great backdrop for wedding photographs.

The Grapery

The Grapery

The gardens should really be seen to be enjoyed but for this post I though I would list the elements that for me make the gardens a wonderful place to visit.

Highlights:

The Avenue: After you emerge from the beech tree wood the avenue leading to the front of the house emerges. It is a1 mile long and is lined with large majestic trees to give it a grand feel. It offers a brilliant view of the house and surrounding countryside. This was the way that famous guests would enter the estate so it was designed to show off the wealth and power of the owners. Our guide even told of one occasion where a very important guest (I think it was a King but I can’t remember) visited and they laid a red carpet down the whole  mile length of the avenue. That must have been a sight to behold!

The Avenue is blocked off at the moment but when open it is a great way to stroll up to the house. Sadly however, it is also a favourite illegal dumping spot. So if you are reading this and are a dumper, just know that I hate you and your dirty rubbish. Just take it to the county dump and stop destroying the countryside and our heritage!

The Lake

The Lake

The Lake: One of my favourite walks to do in Emo Court is around the 20 acre lake which is just at the back of the house. This type of lake is a very important feature in many neo-classical designs. The lake is a fantastic centre point in the gardens and is always teeming with plant and animal life. It is fantastic is visit in any season, but my particular favourite time is in winter when the lake has frozen over. Taking a stroll around the lake is a great way to pass some time and there are some clear, well defined paths to help you navigate it.  At the moment you can’t walk the whole way around by I have heard there are plans afoot to do some work that will allow this.  You can guarantee that if this is completed I will be one of the first out there with my walking shoes on.

The Lawns: The rolling lawns stretch out from the house, surrounding it and are a wonderful place to spend a summer day snoozing or a winters day making a snowman. They are a good spot for picnics as they are well maintained and managed. Additionally the ban on dogs at the Court lessens the risk of stepping on the poop left behind by irresponsible owners. The laws also afford a wonderful view of the estate, the lake, Slieve Bloom Mountains and surrounding countryside.

The Trees and Plants: If you are interested in trees and plants you will be spoilt for choice at Emo court. The estate boasts a wonderful selection of both, in the forest, manicured gardens and in the lake many of which are rare and valuable. The Avenue is lined with giant Wellingtonia trees which give the entrance a grand, majestic feel. The walks are well shaded by a large selection of mature trees some of which have been on the estate since it was established. The walk around the lake is almost completely canopied by lush green trees which is a blessing on a hot, sunny day (yes we do get some of those!). There are also well manicured evergreen trees along the stone walks behind the house which adds a terrific counterpoint to the wilder forest walks. Keep an eye out for the cedars, yews, Japanese maples, Himalayan Spruce, Oak, and Douglas Firs.

If plants and flowers are more your thing fear not the estate provides for you to. Spring is the best time to visit the estate in my opinion as the estate is transformed by carpets of daffodils, snow-drops and bluebells. Summer is also glorious as the scent of the flowers fills the estate and adds wonderful colours and textures. Look out for camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas and many other shrubs and flowers.

The Wildlife:For nature lovers the gardens are a great place to go wildlife spotting. The gardens are full of birds of varying species and as you are in the countryside you can hear their songs clearly. The lake is full of ducks and water birds, there is also a heron who has made his home there. Last time I was by the lake I also spotted dragon flies, fish of various sizes and colours and even a leech! The real highlight for me however is what you find in the wooded areas. I was once standing on a log when I spied a squirrel, I followed it and out of nowhere a group of deer ran out of the trees into the clearing and straight towards me. I got such a fright I forgot to take a picture but it gives a good idea of what you may see if you take a walk through the trees.  The estate also boasts that is home to the poor red squirrels and adorable bats.

Statue

Statue

The Statues: Dotted throughout the gardens there are statues in the classical sytle. The four seasons are represented as well as Bacchus, Ceres, Polyhymnia and The Huntsman and his Dog. Some are on the lawns while others are hidden among the trees. See if you can find them all!

The Tearooms: After all the walking and the plant and animal life spotting you will be in need of refreshment. Lucky for you Emo Court has a really nice tea rooms just to the left of the main house. It is full of yummy lunch items, drinks, ice creams and some of the biggest slices of cake that I have ever seen. There is also a nice craft shop with items such as gardening kits, soaps, home ware and jewellery that you can buy. Irish produced craft items are also stocked for those with an interest in Irish goods.

Access to the gardens is free. Yes that is right totally free! So if you are down in this part of the country you have no excuse. The gardens are wonderful in any season and are well worth a visit. Depending on levels of mobility and fitness you can do as little or as much as you like and then relax in the tearoom afterwards. Enjoy!

There is a great resource book that has been put together about Emo Court, click here it open it.

Something Old: Part 1 Emo Court

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I know what you are must be thinking, who or what is an Emo Court? Is it a place where sad teenagers dressed in black congregate to talk about sad things and sing sad songs? You will be glad to know that it is not, and is in fact a beautiful neo-classical style country house that I have been visiting for years with my family.

I am not a native Dubliner, in fact I grew up in a town called Portlaoise which is about a hour and half drive away from the city. Emo Court is located nearby in the village of Emo which is close to a larger town, Portarlington. I have visited the house and its grounds countless times and sometimes when I go home to visit, we take a trip out to the house for a walk in its picturesque surroundings.

History

Emo Court Avenue

Emo Court Avenue

Emo court was designed by the famous Irish architect James Gandon for the first Earl of Portarlington, John Dawson. You may know Gandon as the architect behind buildings such as the Customs House and Kings Inns in Dublin. Gandon was not in the habit of designing private homes but he agreed to design Emo Court as a favour to the Earl. So Gandon fans should try and visit the house as it is a novelity for Gandon.

After the Earls left for England after World War I the house, like many stately homes of the time fell into a state of disrepair. The estate was then carved up and land was sold to local farmers. There was a groundsman employed on the premises but he was concerned mainly with the security of the property rather than restoration or upkeep.

But in 1930 the house found some saviours in the form of the Jesuits. They purchased the house and slowly the estate began to function again. They created farms and orchards and began much needed repairs to the house. Although they made some major alterations to the inside of the house, as they needed space for a chapel and assembly room, they threw nothing out. All the features they removed were wrapped up and stored in the basement of the house to be saved for future generations. Also without their intervention the house probably would have rotted away like so many other beautiful country houses.

But the main man that locals associate with the house and the man that can be credited with restoring the house to reflect its original design was Major Chomley Harrison. He rebuilt what the Jesuits had altered, reinstalled the original features that were in storage and landscaped the remaining gardens and lake. His daughters did not want to inherit the house (they all have big estates of their own) so he handed it over to the State. He lived in Emo Court until his death in 2008 when the OPW (Office of Public Works) took over the running of the estate. All that time though he kept restoring the estate which was very expensive and time consuming. According to our tour guide it was definitely a labour of love for him. I met him only once and he seemed very nice and very old.

House

As mentioned above the house was designed by James Gandon in the neo-classical style. Symmetry was very important in the design both inside and outside of the house. Access to the inside of the house is by tour only but it is well worth going on as it is only €3.00 for an adult or €1.00 for children or students. There are so many wonderful features so in what as become my default style I will list some of the highlights of the house.

Highlights:

Emo Court Main Lawn

Emo Court Main Lawn

The pediment and columns: These features give the house a very grand feeling you definitely feel like you are entering somewhere very important. The pediment shows the Earl’s coat of arms flanked by scenes from agriculture and the arts. These were the favourite pastimes of the commissioning Earl so they were designed to reflect this. There are also two heraldic tigers on the steps which used to look huge and fierce to me as a child. I will ask though that if you do visit please do not sit on them as they are quite old, you don’t want to break them.

The entrance hall: This is really lovely and has some features that are worth a look at. The chandelier is original from the time of the Earls and it is remarkable to think that it survived all this time. Another thing to note are the wall paintings in the trompe-l’œil style, which gave the optical illusion of mini-domes in the room. But the best feature of this room in my opinion are the doors that lead nowhere. They were put in for the sake of symmetry and are purely for decorative purposes. What fun!

The rotunda:This is often cited as the most spectacular room in Emo court and I would be inclined to agree. It was designed by another famous architect William Caldbeck. This room was opened up by the Jesuits and they removed much of the walls and decorative features. Major Cholmeley-Harrison then restored it to its former glory. It is a copper dome and the room is decorated with pilasters  of Siena Marble. The parquet inlaid floor is designed with Chomley Harrison’s family crest in the centre recognising their contribution to house. The window overlooks one of the statues of the Four Seasons and the beautiful gardens.

Dome

Dome

The dining room: The OPW to their credit, have tried to keep the rooms as they would have been when Major Chomley Harrison lived there. Because of this there are some great items in the house which give a great sense of how people lived in these great houses. Some of my favourite items were found in the dining room as we could see original table settings, family portraits, and gifts given to the families who lived there. We were shown a large basket which servants used to carry plates from the table, a gentleman’s drinking cabinet with a secret compartment for emergency stashes and a deer’s foot which was a wedding gift for Major Chomley Harrison from his army colleagues.

Family Photos and portraits: All the rooms we went into were decorated with photos, drawing and portraits of Major Cholmeley-Harrison, his family and important people in his life. This gave the tour guide an opportunity to share some of his family history which was fascinating. Also I felt to was a fitting tribute to the man who saved the building and spent his later years restoring it to what it was intended to be.

Artwork and furniture: There were many pieces of art which did not depict a member of the family but were beautiful none-the-less. On the tour you can see some Dutch masters, contemporary Irish painters and many others from the Major’s private collections. The furniture was all his too, much of it coming from an estate in Scotland. My favourite piece was a corner unit that he spotted as a boy and loved. He later found it at an auction many, many years later and bought it. Fantastic eye for detail! There were also some other items such as some swords, a fire shield and ornate chairs that I really liked.

Overall the charm of the house lies in the fact that it still looks like a family home, albeit a very grand one! The personal touches such as photographs really add to the atmosphere of homeliness and you can tell that the house was much loved. Another element that sets Emo Court apart from some other house tours is that you can walk in and around the rooms rather than staring at the items from behind a rope. You can get up close to have a look at whatever has interested you and it does make a difference. The tour guide was brilliant and very knowledgeable about the history of the house and the objects displayed within it. If you do get a chance to take the tour I could not recommend it enough.

On Thursday I will finish the description of Emo Court with a round up of the gardens.

There is a great resource book that has been put together about Emo Court, click here it open it.

Guest Post by Emer F: Lost Composers, Clara Wieck Schumann

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If you were to ask most people, even yourself, to name a few prolific composers of classical music, what names would you hear? Undoubtedly the usual names would appear; Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin…the list goes on. Now, what if I asked you to name some female composers? Did they even exist? Surprisingly, there are quite a few female composers that have slipped under the radar. From the duchess Anna Amalia who set up her own “Court of Muses” and wrote one of the first German operas, down to the opera singer Pauline Garcia Viardot who not only achieved international recognition, she also wrote several arrangements for voice by such composers as Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, and Handel.

Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann

One of the women I find most interesting is Clara Schumann. I know what you may be thinking, that surname sounds awfully familiar, and it should, as she was married to the more well known composer, Robert Schumann. Unfortunately because of this, and the fact that the great Johannes Brahms was infatuated with her for much of his life, she has mainly been mentioned in the context of these relationships. Recent interest has allowed us to discover more about her own life and musical training, and thankfully some of her works have been recovered.

Born as Clara Wieck in 19th century Germany, Schumann was brought up in a society that expected much from young women in terms of music. Girls were taught piano from an early age and received musical theory training, limited mostly to the basics as they were only to play and compose for salon gatherings in the house. Schumann was quite a special case. When her parents divorced, Schumann and her four siblings were taken into custody by their father, an amateur pianist, as was the law. With her father, she received an extended musical education including lessons in harmony, counterpoint, transposition, singing and violin.

After her father remarried, the Wieck household became a meeting place for many people concerned with the musical tradition, most importantly publishers and writers as well as other musicians. Schumann was very lucky in that it gave her a chance to perform for influential figures, even if the performances were not of her own works. This was her first step towards becoming a more public figure, and soon enough she had her first public appearance in October of 1828. She performed profusely after that, completing two Viennese tours. Clara also introduced the idea of solo concerts which were highly unusual at the time. She achieved  wide critical acclaim and she was impressively given the opportunity by other composers such as Frederic Chopin and her husband Robert Schumann to premiere certain works.

Clara Schumann

Clara Schumann

Despite her talents and the hype that surrounded her, Schumann herself felt inferior as a composer, compared to her husband and many others. Who could blame her really? Her world was one that only took star female performers seriously, and often reviews began with a delightful; “Considering this composer is a lady…”. Her lack of self confidence still did not stop her. She refused to let domesticity get in the way of her love for music. Even after the birth of her children, she always put her role as a mother before her composition but not before her role as an artist. Usually women were holed up in their houses for the duration of a pregnancy, but Schumann toured right on through her eight pregnancies! As a result, her performing career was one of the longest sustained during the nineteenth century, lasting from 1828-1891 and included over 1,300 public recitals.

When her husband found himself in an asylum, she was at no great loss financially. She was able to support her family by performing and organising concerts. She also taught piano in the Leipzig Conservatory for some time, but as she took her role as a concert artist so seriously, she did not become a full time piano teacher until she was offered a place in the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt.

Clara Schumann wrote many works in her lifetime and it is a shame that few have been recovered. At the mere age of nine, one year after she commenced her musical training, she wrote her first piano pieces; 4 Polonaises op. 1. After that she composed in a wide range of musical forms which was unusual for a woman of the time, who were usually restricted to writing salon music due to the basic musical education they received. These forms included; piano works, music set to text, orchestral and chamber works. Many women of the time published their works under a man’s name so as to be taken seriously. Even Schumann used her husband’s name for three songs on texts by F. Rückert, op. 12. What is unusual about this is the fact that she had written and published before she had even met her husband, and before that she did not go under the guise of a male composer. The real reason for this is not known, however, her new role as a wife may have been the reason for this change, as women generally were expected to give up everything for a life of pure domesticity once married. Many of her piano works have surfaced, however, her German Lieder (songs) have received much less attention.

These Lieder are crucial to the examination of Clara’s growth as a composer as she only began writing them after her marriage to her husband. This coming together of two musical people provided them both with new ideas and inspiration as they began to explore their song writing abilities. Clara Schumann’s songs were more similar to the more older songs of Schubert and Mendelssohn which was odd as she was great friends with one of the most prolific Lieder writers of the time, Brahms. One would expect that he would have had some influence on her work. Even the style represented in her husband’s song cycles was completely different to hers.

The main problem with knowledge of Clara Schumann in recent times is there is much detail about her biographically. After all, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms are two canonical composers that generate much interest so it is understandable that Clara Schumann has really only been described in the context of these two relationships. As of late, much attention has been given to her life as a composer and not just as an accessory to the other composers’ lives. This is thanks to many music scholars, more notably, Nancy Reich and Pamela Susskind, who have brought the idea of Clara Schumann as a composer to the fore.

Something Old: Music of the Spheres, Part 2

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For the first part of this please click here.

Holst

Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst

As part of Dublin City of Science 2012, the city played host to ESOF 2012. This was a gathering of science folk, where they met to discuss, well, science! Because of this event Holst’s The Planets, Op32. was scheduled to coincide with this important and prestigious event. Although the link is quite tenuous, I did’t care as it meant that I finally got to go see this live. The Planet’s will always have a special place in my music collection as it was the first piece of orchestral music that I ever owned.

The Planets is a seven movement orchestral suite which was written between 1914-1916. It is is about fifty minutes long so chugging glasses of wine at the interval is not advised. Each movement of the suite is based on a planet in the Solar System and how Holst imagined their influence to be. It is an astrological representation of the planets, hence Earth is not included (it is also not very sciencey but we can over look that). Pluto is not included either as it was only discovered in 1930 and Holst was not bothered creating a movement for it. This was because of the love-hate relationship that he developed with the music, he felt The Planets over-shadowed other works of his, which were in his opinion, of better quality. It all worked out for the best as Pluto is not categorised as a planet any more anyway.

Mars, the Bringer of War

The suite opens with a bang as Mars the bringer of war makes its entrance. This was the boys favourite piece of the night and it commands attention like no other. The movement is loud, strong and unrelenting, the purpose being to create an image of warfare. Throughout the moment you can hear the orchestra painting the scene of a mighty battle with the sounds of marching, planes swooping and firing artillery. The music evokes a panicked, urgent air in between military battle blasts and loud triumphant motifs.

We were sitting right above the orchestra for this and it the sheer power of the music was incredible.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like sitting in the orchestra in the midst of the sound itself because it was really loud and booming!

Venus, The Bringer of Peace

A stark contrast to the drama of Mars, Venus begins with soothing tones and melodies emulating the essence of peace. Delicate and light, you could not hear a sound from the audience while this was played. The inclusion of the harp and celesta add an ethereal, heavenly air to the movement which floats and ebbs. It does have a hint of pressing sadness to the sound which gives it a layer of complexity that hints at a picture that goes deeper than just a scene of peace.

Mercury, The Winged Messenger

This a movement where there is a strong celestial feel. Scales are used to depict Mercury skipping through the air carrying important heavenly messages. A hoping motif bounces around the orchestra, being played by many different instruments, almost like Mercury is bouncing between them. It is a spritely, busy movement at times almost sounds like buzzing bees.

Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity

This is my favourite movement of the suite and is the one that I always turn up to ear-splitting levels. The beginning is busy and exciting, just like a great party being announced. It is another full sounding piece but it is very different sound to that of Mars, saying come have a party rather than come fight a war. Sections of instruments pick up the melody which to me sounds like they are spreading the invitation for one and all to come have some fun.

It then breaks into a dance like tune and the listener gets a vivid image of people dancing and having a great time. Not before long a motif enters which I have always imagined to be Jupiter itself showing the guests how the dancing is done. More instruments them take up the theme like everyone joining in and the music quickens and gets louder. The tambourine and trumpets are used to great affect here, reaffirming the idea of dancing and jollity.

The movement then turns into a quieter section where the strings play a main sweeping, blissful melody. The music is regal, beautiful and has an almost hopeful element to it with an air of triumph and glory. I am always afraid that I have started singing along to the music at this point and must check myself to make sure that I’m not.

This movement has, in my opinion, the best ending of the suite and I think it would have made for a better final ending that Neptune (which will be discussed below). The end is created using swirling low tones which sounds like you are in a vortex, about to be blasted off to another dimension before strong blasts signal the end of the movement.

Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age

This is Holst’s favourite piece in the suite and yet it is one of the lesser known ones. We return to a quiet piece, much like Venus, but again the atmosphere is very different. There is a steady plodding motif throughout, developing the idea of time ticking on and old age approaching. Over this base line, melodies curl and spin giving a spirit like feeling. The piece then brightens before returning to the steady motif from the start.  It is a bit spooky and dark and it has some frightening elements to it, much like I imagine many people feel about old age. At times it gets quite loud before, the notes tumble in a discordant fashion. This sounds to me like the chimes of a clock announcing that the time has come. The bells are used to emulate the ticking of a clock which is very cleverly executed.

But the end has a less scary feel. The ticking of the clock continues by the plunking of the strings and the chiming of the bells. It sounds like the listener has made peace with the fact that we all must age and it is quite an angelic, graceful ending.

Uranus, The Magician

This begins with another loud blast and dramatic drums. The melody is whimsical and lumbering, but in a good way. It sounds like a carnival, brassy and bright but with a slight air of menace. It has a marching motif which slides into discordant sounds. This movement does not feel safe the way Jupiter does. You can imagine a magician up to no good, warping the laws of nature for their own uses. It is quite an eccentric piece, crafting a vision of a jester hiding some deep, dangerous hidden knowledge. Either that or of a bumbling magician who keeps getting it wrong to disastrous consequences. Why not have a listen and see what you think?

Neptune, The Mystic

This is the last movement of the suite when it has been played in its entirety. At some concerts only a few of the movements are played and often they ended with Jupiter. This was said to have annoyed Holst a great deal and he felt it was a cop-out to have a happy ending rather than the one that he had designed with Neptune, which has a very different feel to it.

Neptune envelops listeners in a light, yet chilling sound which mimics the idea of the vast empty space of far away parts of the galaxy. It has a sense of being deep underwater with strings playing a soft, high melody and the wind instruments sailing above them in a swirling, spinning tune. The tinkling of the celesta adds to the celestial atmosphere reinforcing the sense of deep, all consuming space.

This is also the only piece that voices are used. A haunting choir of voices joins the orchestra from a room hidden from the audience. The New Dublin Voices sang the melody for this evening. It adds an eerie, echoing dynamic to the music capturing the sense of space really wonderfully. The movement then fades out drawing the audiences breath with it. The composer, Matthew Coorey held the orchestra for what seemed like an eternity and we were all terrified to move. But then he relaxed and everyone else was ale to do the same.

Conclusion

It was a great show and I really enjoyed it. The Gershwin was a lot of fun and we had a fantastic debate about which planet was our favourite. The boys were playing Mars at home all weekend after which may have scared the cat for a while. If you have a chance to go and see either of these pieces performed live, you should go. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Seats

View from the balcony

View from the balcony

I mentioned in previous posts that when we sat in front of the stage we were only able to see the piano and string sections. This time we decided to sit in a side balcony to get a different perspective. From here we could see the wind, brass and percussion sections much better and could still see the piano and violin. We did however then lose sight of the cellos as we were seated directly over them. My advice would be if you are going to a concert decided what section you would like to see and pick the seats accordingly.

Something Old and New: The Music of the Spheres, Part 1

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On Friday, 13th of July myself, my trust companion and Padpad made our way to the National Concert Hall again for another night of music from the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra. “The Music of the Spheres” promised to be a great night of music from two 20th century composers, Gershwin and Holst. I was first introduced to their music through The Magicical Music Box, which if you have read previous posts will not be much of a surprise! I have wanted to hear these pieces of music live for sometime and was delighted that the two pieces were included in the one concert.

Gershwin

George Gershwin

George Gershwin

The first piece played was Rhapsody in Blue (1924) by George GerswinIt was written for a solo piano and orchestra, and it has created some good debate among critics, most notably concerning if it is a full composition or a series of paragraphs stuck together. The question of can it be considered as a jazz piece or not is also still quite topical. Since its first performance Rhapsody in Blue, which was meant to be a “musical kaleidoscope of America”, has come to be seen as a representation of all things New York.  It  features in movies and TV shows depicting New York such as Glee, Doctor Who, Manhattan and Gremlins 2. In the Magical Music Box it inspired a story about gangsters, molls, jewel thefts and the Empire State Building.

The piece opens with a distinctive and iconic wailing clarinet playing a glissando, sounding like a siren. It is probably one of the best known openings to a piece of music and is great live. I am very glad that Gershwin chose it add it to the original score after Ross Gorman played it as a joke at an early rehearsal. The music swaggers in the opening with deep brassy undertones supporting the clarinet as it sails above the orchestra. What I really like about this piece is that it gets loud, quickly. Symbols crash and the orchestra belts out the melody before it lulls into a quieter piece with pianos or wind/brass instrument solos, before the orchestra crashes in again. This theme is repeated keeping the audience of their toes, not quite knowing what is coming next. There is also a beautiful section where the strings play a dreamy melody which is a nice contrast to some of the jazzier elements of the piece. The composition is formed in such a way that the changes never feel like an intrusion or a rude interruption but rather just a fun, spirited showcase of the orchestra. You could also see that the orchestra were really enjoying playing the piece and the conductor, Matthew Coorey really kept the energy going. This was great stuff as he was wearing formal tails and bouncing about to a jazzy composition.

But the real star of the show is really the piano, which plays solos throughout. The varied style of playing is exciting to listen to and did not fail to impress on the night.  The melodies are beautifully crafted, chopping and changing to the different themes and embellishments on the themes. The tempo varies widely through for all instruments but it is most evident in the piano playing. In fact this is the piece which makes me wish I knew how to play the piano as it just makes it sound like so much fun.

As stated above there is still a debate raging about whether Rhapsody in Blue is jazz or not. I am in no way qualified to make a pick a side on that but I will say that nobody can deny that it is heavily influenced by jazz.  Blue notes, glissando, ragtime rhythms, and use of instruments such as the saxophone are included which  give the piece a jazz like feel even if it is not counted as “pure jazz”

Next Philip Martin, the pianist, played a selection of songs from the American Songbook. These were delightful pieces which flowed with each other nicely. Now to be honest I couldn’t tell you which was which but he definitely played Sweet and Low Down, Somebody Loves Me,The Man I Love, Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)
and I Got Rhythm. The audience could really tell that Philip Martin was a big Gershwin fan as he played with great enthusiasm and even jumped but at the end with sweeping jazz hands pointing to the orchestra. He even invited the audience to sing along, not that anyone was brave enough. He was an absolute legend and it was a brilliant end to end the first half!

Next Thursday part two will describe the second half of the show, Gustav Holst’s The Planets. 

Something New and Old: From Russia…with Fun.

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Introduction:

At the moment I am on a National Concert Hall binge. On Friday the 6th June 2012, I went back to attend “From Russia…with fun” with my trusty companion and my parents. This was a programme of music made up of light hearted pieces from three of Russia’s best known and loved composers. The evening got to off to a dodgy start (we forgot the tickets) but we found an internet café, battled the winds and rain and made it on time, all excited for the concert.

From Russia...with fun"

From Russia…with fun”

Tchaikovsky:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The orchestra opened with the Polonaise and Waltz from “Eugene Onegin” (1879). “Eugene Onegin” is an opera based on a novel of the same name by Alexander Pushkin and is considered to be one of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s best operas. Contrary to the title it is not about a man who has only one type of gin (which I know I am pronouncing completely incorrect) rather it follows the story of a man who is mean and selfish and whose acts have brought sadness and catastrophe to the people he cares about.

The orchestra performed the Polonaise first. A Polonaise is a dance of Polish origin which was very popular in the 19th century. It has a very grand feel to it so was a good choice for this scene which portrayed a grand ball in a stately Russian Manor. The piece opened with loud and dramatic fanfare, which woke us up and grabbed our attention. From here the music continued with its majestic feel but in a light, fun and spirited way. It definitely was not boring and it was upbeat and cheerful, even the conductor (Timothy Henty) was hopping about on his pedestal. To break up the melody there were some very dramatic parts where the string played low, broad strokes to create a buzzing sound. Here the conductor twisted his arms in a winding, snake-like way and then went back to hopping when the melody returned to the main tune.

The Waltz (which I doubt needs explaining) was a much gentler section. It was again beautiful and airy, creating the images of skirts skimming the ground lightly when people are dancing. It was charming and delicate and I really enjoyed it.

The thing I love most about Tchaikovsky is just how accessible his music is. Often times people use the word accessible as a slur but I am absolutely using it as a compliment. It is just so easy to listen to and enjoy but it retains all the intelligence and creativity your brain needs to keep it nourished.

Shostakovich:

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich

Next in the programme was music from the man whose name I can never pronounce properly, Dmitri Shostakovich, who is one of the most important Russian composers of all time. The piece that was played this evening was the “Piano Concerto No.1 in C Minor, Op.35” (1933). This was written in a few weeks, just before his 27th birthday and performed later that year. Shostsakovich was already quite a well established composer at the time and this piece was well received (just to depress me even more).

It is made up of four parts Allegretto, Lento, Moderato and Allegro con brio. These can change depending on the interpretation but tonight they played the piece as described above. It is commonly said that the Moderato is really just an introduction to Allegro con brio, and this is why you can see this piece separated into three parts.

Playing the piano was Elisaveta Blumina, who was making her NCO début and Graham Hastings was on lead Trumpet. I was delighted to see that they were both placed at the front of the orchestra, as it is nice to see something other than the strings for a change. The Steinway piano that was wheeled out for Ms Blumina was gorgeous and I instantly coveted it, not that it would fit in my flat.

The piano melodies were really well executed. It was easy to see how Ms Blumina has earned her reputation as a eminent pianist and musician. The piano alternated through sweeping scales, disjointed melodies and deep base notes creating a disjointed yet appropriate theme. At times the music sounded quite spooky and dissonant. You could hear snatches of melodies, syncopated jazz-like tunes and strong folk influences. The whole range of the piano was used and really showcased the talents of the pianist. For the performance Ms Bulmina bopped about in her seat in time to the music, curled up and arched her back while playing, demonstrating the intensity of the music.

The piece is meant to be a double concerto but in reality, most people agree, that it sounds like a piano concerto. The trumpet is not really given equal exposure to the piano and the piece is heavily dominated by the piano as a result. Saying that though, without the trumpet the piece would sound quite empty and in my opinion would be weaker for an absence. When the trumpet did play, it was clear and distinguished. The melodies seemed to have more form and structure and added a really nice element to the overall atmosphere of the piece.

The strings in their support role were also fantastic. They swayed between urgent, hectic playing to sweeping calm notes. They squeaked and plucked creating a colourful background over which the piano and trumped did their thing. They were a good anchor for the music which allowed the piano do take off with fast, scaling notes which did not make it too unconformable to listen to.

Sometimes it felt like the lines of music were completely ignoring each other but it worked. The music cartwheeled from fast and upbeat, to choppy and jazzy to a smoother, more wistful sound.

Overall I don’t think this piece of music will be for everyone. My trusty companion although impressed by the skill of the musicians, did not like the music all . I, on the other hand, very much enjoyed it. I thought the change of melodies was crafted brilliantly and not like a monkey throwing darts at a score (like some modern composers who shall remain nameless). The music changed moods from creepy to melancholic to upbeat and fun and was a great choice for the evening’s programme.

Rimsky-Korsakov:

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

The last piece of music was “Scheherazade” (1888) by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  I first heard this piece of music in Issue 11 of the “The Magical Music Box”, Sindbad and the Kraaken (hense the something old!). The story of Scheherazade is familiar to most people, poor old Scheherazade has found herself married to the evil Sultan, who likes to kill his brides after one night. She has a cunning plan however and tells him riveting stories for 1,001 nights (see I told you, you knew the story!).  In the end he doesn’t kill her and she saves herself and all the women who would have died because of that arsehole and his issues.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece is split into four parts to represents her story and the stories that she tells and I just loved it. The four parts are detailed below.

The Sea and Sinbad’s Ships.

This piece captures the audience’s attention with heavy brass and a booming melody. This represents the sultan, who is a brash, scary and forceful man. This then morphs into Scheherazade’s theme which is simply angelic. You get a really clear sense of a delicacy and complexity tinged with sadness. Her theme is played by Alan Smale, who is the leader of the orchestra, and you would have heard a pin drop in the concert hall. No one dared breathe or move, such is the power of Scheherazade’s theme.

Unsurprisingly, due to his Naval past, Rimsky-Korsakov paints a vivid portrait of an ocean. The music moves like waves, with the stings playing broad strokes and the rest of the orchestra sailing above. The cello is particularly wonderful and really makes you feel like you are on a rocking ocean. But as always we cannot become too comfortable as the brass and percussion blast loudly creating a sense of danger and foreboding, to draw us and the Sultan, as listeners, deeper into the story.

The Kalendar Prince

The harp is added to Scheherazade’s theme which gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. The theme also becomes more complex with double notes being played shrilly to great affect. The wind section really comes into its own here, playing melodies that would make you want to get up and dance.

All the way through the piece speeds up and then slows down, and speeds again adding to the anticipation and suspense. The lines of music seem to answer each other in an echoing prose which is really magical (the inclusion of the harp really enhances this). The melodies are clear and you can be under no doubt that they are telling a story rather than notes drafted on a whim.

Also the sense of drama does not leave, in fact it heightens and I could just imagine a hero(ine) running round a boat on a great adventure. Loud, powerful brass and strings are played like a hunting call to give the atmosphere of impending disaster. This smashes the illusion of peace, which reflects Scheherazade’s own story perfectly.

The Young Prince and The Young Princess

Now for a bit of romance! Well you can’t have a folk tale and not include some falling in love. The strings play rocking melodies, serenading the audience. The piece is bright and smooth, painting a lush image of the exotic, Arabian setting for the tale. The wind instruments played angelic scales and again you were alomst afraid to breathe in case you made a sound disturbing the music.

The percussion are utilised in a particularly marvellous way here. Tings of the triangle, shakes, bangs and beats craft an excellent dance feel of toe-tapping worthiness.

Festival at Bagdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.

The largely named fourth part above (I am not retyping it) is fantastically invigorating and will have you jumping out of your seat to look for adventure. It bursts into life in a few dramatic, boisterous notes before falling into Scheherazade’s theme which is played more ornate than ever.

Here all the elements that I love are combined, the percussion, busy strings, distinctive blasts of brass and swooping wind instruments. All his love for the exotic and penchant for the dramatic blasts forth in this exciting piece.

OK so you an probably guess that I really like this piece and I like it even more each time I hear it. Rimsky-Korsakov just had such a talent from crafting terrific images with his music and  every thought, emotion and message is transmitted so perfectly. He took full advantage of all the instruments that he had at his disposal and as a result knew exactly the strengths and sounds of each of them. This why his music has that feeling of master skill and care, which is so important in music. He knew how to create a picture and you will be hard pressed to find an example superior to Scheherazade. 

Conclusion:

It was a great night of music which I really enjoyed. What was lovely to see was how much some members of the orchestra and the composer seemed to enjoy it too. My only regret was not picking a seat where I could see the brass, wind and percussion sections. I have a real love for the wind section in particular and would like to see them perform.

The concert is still available to listen to on Lyric FM so go straight away and pop it on. Let me know what you thought if you do!