It’s easy to feel disconnected during these times of Social Distancing and quarantines, but music unites us. Tune in every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoon for Maestro Alastair Willis’ “Quarantunes” – his personal playlist of tracks that connect and inspire. Let us know which are your favorites and know that we are all in this together!
Alastair’s Quarantunes Track #1 - March 31, 2020
Hi everyone, welcome to “Alastair’s Quarantunes”. I’d like to share some tunes that I’m listening to these days, a mixture of classical and non-classical, that have special meaning to me, that are outside of the mainstream and perhaps pieces that will be new to you. I’ll post a few a week (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays). I hope you enjoy them too, and that you’ll feel free to share any connections you have to the music.
To start, something orchestral: Sinfonietta, by Czech composer Leos Janacek.
I first heard this unique piece when I was the Assistant Conductor of the Seattle Symphony. The raw power of the opening, the unusual (to me) harmonies, electrifying confidence and the many surprises had a huge impact on me. Janacek said this piece was intended to express “contemporary free man, his spiritual beauty and strength, courage, and determination to fight for victory”. Here’s a terrific recording by Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra
(Next up: something choral!)
Alastair’s Quarantunes Track #2 - April 2, 2020
Hope you enjoyed Janacek’s Sinfonietta – thanks for your comments! Today I’ve chosen Requiem by Herbert Howells.
I first heard this piece while reading music at Bristol University. Very few pieces have ever grabbed me as powerfully on a first hearing. I was conducting the Bristol University Music Society’s chamber choir, and knew in an instant we would sing it. The performance with those amazing singers is still to this day one of my favorite musical memories.
It’s for unaccompanied double choir, so please imagine the visual stereo of a live performance as you listen. Here’s a breathtaking recording by the Conspirare Texas & The Company of Voices, conducted by Craig Hella Johnson
(Tomorrow – something VERY different…)
Alastair’s Quarantunes Track #3 - April 3, 2020
Hope you enjoyed Howells Requiem!
These past few days I’ve been revisiting the virtuosic Cuban jazz band IRAKERE and I feel compelled to share their energizing music! I was introduced to this band by Marcos D’Cruze in 1994, and even got to hear them live at Ronnie Scott’s in London, an evening I’ll never forget. From their many amazing tracks, I’ve chosen “Concierto para metals”. I still hold my breath at the virtuosity from the brass’ and winds’ long and technical unison lines (I never could play them, but I get closer every time trying to sing along, it’s so much fun – especially starting at 3:54). Let me know what you think!
Irakere, Concierto para metals
Have a musical weekend!
Alastair’s Quarantunes Track #4 - April 7, 2020
People ask me if I miss playing the trumpet – I do sometimes, usually when I hear today’s Quarantune: Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. When I was 13, I went on a school trip to London to hear a concert, which included this piece. The next day I went to my school’s music department and announced I wanted to learn the trumpet. Five years later I played the concerto at my graduation concert. This piece is so special to me – the one piece that got me into music.
There are many great recordings on YouTube, here’s one by the legendary Maurice Andre.
(next up – something ‘heavenly’)
Alastair’s Quarantunes Track #5 - April 9, 2020
It was love at first hearing with today’s Quarantune: Musica Celestis, by the American composer, Aaron Jay Kernis. The heavenly, crystalline opening chords are breathtaking how they ‘sigh’ in and out of each other. The heartfelt simplicity moves me every time I hear it (though make no mistake: this piece is deceptively difficult to perform!). In his program note Kernis says “Musica Celestis is inspired by the medieval conception of that phrase which refers to the singing of the angels in heaven in praise of God without end.” I recommend listening to this in the dark, or at least with your eyes closed, letting the music surround and embrace you.
(Tomorrow – something quite different…)
Alastair’s Quarantunes Track #6 - April 10, 2020
I hope you’ve enjoyed Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto and Kernis’ Musica Celestis so far this week. I’d like to send you into the weekend with something different. Do you ever associate musical experiences with who you were with, or where you were, or the mood you were in? I do. I associate today’s Quarantunes choice during a happy time for me that was filled with new experiences and opportunities. Looking back, I never would have thought Stevie Wonder’s “Conversation Peace” album would’ve made such an impact on me, but for me it was the album of the summer of 1995. Every track has great meaning for me – I recommend them all – if you’ve time for just one, check out “Take the Time Out (to love someone)”.
Alastair’s Quarantunes Track #7 - April 14, 2020
Alastair’s Quarantunes #7 – Poulenc “Les Biches” Having been brought up in the ballet world (my mum is a dance critic) and guest conducting Pacific Northwest Ballet these past ten years, Quarantunes #7 is a ballet score I absolutely adore: Poulenc’s “Les Biches”. Poulenc’s delicious neo-classical score sets the saucy French plot perfectly – the characters simply jump out of the music. It was a commission from Serge Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, and inspired by Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Here’s the Andantino movement, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Junichi Hirokami (who conducted the first performance I ever heard).
(Up next: Mozart and a twist!)
Alastair’s Quarantunes Track #8 - April 16, 2020
Alastair's Quarantunes #8 - April 16, 2020 – Mozart Horn Concerto No.4 My love of the horn repertoire is thanks to my sister Sarah. Growing up, I spent years singing along in my room to Sarah’s practicing downstairs. It’s impossible to pick a favorite horn concerto or soloist, but Mozart #4 with Dennis Brain is hard to beat. I dreamed of arranging the last movement for choir, only to discover it’d had already been done – so I’m including it as a Quarantunes bonus track for today!
Dennis Brain, Herbert von Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic
Bonus track: Swingle Singers, 3rd movement
Alastair’s Quarantunes #9 – April 17, 2020 - Paco de Lucia
The flamenco guitar has always intrigued me. Jazz and classical guitar, too. Discovering the virtuoso Paco de Lucia, who combines all three, was eye-opening to me. I could listen to his playing for hours (and often do). How does he move his fingers so fast?! Here’s a one-click, two-hour playlist of his amazing playing. (If you’ve time for just a quick sampling, start at 16:50)
Alastair’s Quarantunes #10 - April 21, 2020 - Mahler Adagietto from Symphony No.5
This Adagietto is Mahler’s declaration of love for Alma. It’s my most favorite musical love letter, melts me every time. (How lucky was Alma, his new bride?!) According to Alma, Mahler left this small poem:
In which way I love you, my sunbeam, I cannot tell you with words. Only my longing, my love and my bliss can I with anguish declare.
Here’s Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Here’s the link to the entire symphony, if you’ve 75 mins to spare
(Next up: a Hungarian masterpiece)
Alastair’s Quarantunes #11 – April 24, 2020 - Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
To me this is an absolute masterpiece. I had an entire summer to study it before conducting it for the first time. The more I dived into it, the richer its complexity became to me. The symmetry and sinuous sound in the 1st movement’s terrifyingly dramatic fugue, the jazzy moments in the 2nd movement, the ‘night music’ of the 3rd movement, using the Fibonacci sequence to execute the accelerando, the last movement’s dance, unusual combination of instruments - how I long to conduct it again!
Here’s a visual score for you to follow along to, Ferenc Fricsay conducting the RIAS Symphony Orchestra
Alastair’s Quarantunes #12 – John Adams Short Ride in a Fast Machine
An exhilarating late-night ride in his brother-in-law’s Lamborghini inspired John Adams to compose this exciting, energetic, white-knuckle fanfare. I’m on the edge of my seat every time I conduct or listen to it. I can’t think of a more action-packed and exhilarating four-minute piece!
Here’s Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony
(next up, something British)
Alastair’s Quarantunes #13 – Handel’s Zadok the Priest
Feeling patriotic today – this Coronation Anthem by Handel has been played at the coronation of every British monarch since it was composed in 1727. For me, this piece is enormously satisfying to experience live in concert. I feel lucky I’ve sung, played (trumpet), and conducted it, as well as listened from the audience. The choir’s powerful, majestic first entrance never fails to make me smile!
Stephen Cleobury conducts the Academy of Ancient Music with the Kings College Choir of Cambridge.
Alastair’s Quarantunes #14 – Britten Variations on a Theme by Henry Purcell (Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra)
My first conducting teacher, Adrian Brown, taught me this piece, also gave me precious rehearsal time with his Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra. It’s an absolute masterpiece, a guide for all ages in its brilliant dissection of the orchestra. The final fugue (last 3 mins) where Britten puts the orchestra ‘back together’ is exceptionally thrilling. It can be performed with or without narration. Here’s a recording without, played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Andre Previn conducting.
Bonus track – Henry Purcell’s original theme, from his Abdelazer Suite
Alastair's Quarantunes #16 – Beethoven Egmont Overture
Conductors obsess about this piece. The weight of sound of the opening note. The technical challenges of conducting the slow introduction. The transition into the allegro and into the coda.
Egmont Overture is a conductor’s litmus test, found on auditions and competitions for good reason. It never gets easier to conduct, but I absolutely love it. My favorite part is the coda (starts 7:20) – the light after all the darkness – the exhilaration of a thousand feet running in successful revolution.
Here’s a favorite recording of Furtwangler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Don't forget to subscribe to the #SBSO channel!
Oh, and happy 250th, Ludwig.
Alastair's Quarantunes #17 – Elgar Sospiri
This heartfelt piece for strings and harp (or harmonium) is a six-minute musical “sigh”, composed in 1913 after the death of Elgar’s friend, Julia Worthington. The first time I heard it, its Mahlerian intensity grabbed me – I had no idea it was by Elgar. I’ve loved conducting this piece over the years, its beauty, emotion, and simplicity continues to touch me deeply. Its premonition of sadness and loss (that was to come in WWI) connects to our current climate.
Here’s a live recording of a concert I conducted with the wonderful River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston last November.
Alastair's Quarantunes #18 – Constant Lambert “The Rio Grande”
While searching for repertoire for the Bristol University Chamber Choir in 1992, I came across a piece that initially struck me as a “Rhapsody in Blue with chorus” – it had a jazzy solo piano part and an equally fun chorus part. I was sold! Constant Lambert’s setting of Sacheverell Sitwell’s poem is full of joy and elation. It was enormous fun to rehearse and perform and bring back special memories each time I hear it.
Andre Previn conducts the LSO with Cristina Ortiz (piano)
Alastair's Quarantunes #19 – Vaughan Williams “Job, a Mask for Dancing”
When I first became interested in conducting, I learned this piece for a competition. I didn’t end up entering, instead, I attended the competition as an observer, and was swept up in the power, scope, and majesty of this dramatic one-act ballet based on the book of Job in the Bible. I’ve never seen it programmed since, never conducted it, nor seen it as a ballet. All 44 minutes are wonderful, I hope you enjoy it too.
Here’s Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
Alastair’s Quarantunes #20 – Ravel La Valse
I didn’t understand this masterpiece the first time I heard it (not sure I do now). Composed in 1920, to me its disturbingly urgent and threatening overtones are surely linked to WWI, but Ravel’s program note says it is “set in an imperial court, about 1855”. It’s not a waltz in the Viennese/Johann Strauss sense. It’s extraordinarily difficult to play, and SO much fun to conduct. The question at every point is ‘how much rubato’ or ‘how flexible’ should the phrasing be. Here’s a version with tasteful rubato by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung.