Thursday, 20 October 2011
A little light ondes music
Never heard of a composer called Pierre Vellones (pictured above with Maurice Martenot in 1936)? Neither had I until Tuesday evening, when Cynthia Millar, friend and doyenne of that singular Messiaenic bird the ondes Martenot, paid my BBC Symphony Orchestra class at the City Lit a visit. I hope it doesn’t put into the shadow the magnificent light she shed on her long-standing acquaintance with the role her instrument plays in its most monumental incarnation, the Turangalila Symphony, nor all the splendid work she’s done as composer for films and TV, to say that the real revelation was a piece of light music – by Vellones.
A bit of an epoch-maker, as it turned out, since the delightfully dotty Vitamines - a precursor of a light-music piece I think is a real gem, John Malcolm’s Non Stop, better known as the old ITN news theme – was one of two pieces Vellones wrote for his friend, fellow cellist and of course inventor Maurice Martenot as early as 1935. Along with the 'Valse tzigane' Split, it featured both saxophones and the ondes as I’ve never quite heard it before, staccato rather than swoopily legato (though we did also hear a piece of music for TV Cynthia had written which emulated that approach). So here’s the Columbia a-side
pursued in more leisurely style by Split, with the ondes in more familiar mode.
These are two that, we agreed on Tuesday, the fabulous John Wilson could resuscitate with pleasure. And were we to flick back a few years, courtesy of the miracles of YouTube, we could also listen to a more serious Fantaisie Vellones wrote for ondes and piano.
It seems to me there’s almost as much mileage to be got out of the singular histories of these two grands amis as from the story of Lev Termen, the creator of the theremin.
Which is of course operated quite differently from the later ondes – by adjusting finger and arm movements in a force field. The ondes Martenot comprises a keyboard (monodic), the ribbon (ruban) in front of it threaded through a metal ring controlling portamenti and glissandi
and of course the three speakers, of which the most attractive to behold below is the palme, with its lyre-like arrangement of 24 tuned strings.
Nevertheless the artistry, especially in matter of manipulating dynamics and vibrato, makes the ondes irreplaceable by the plain old synthesizer or computer. And the same goes for the theremin. I take the liberty of reproducing another gem since one of my most treasured CDs, The Art of the Theremin, has gone walkabout. It features the great Clara Rockmore, Vilnius-born violinist pupil of Leopold Auer turned theremenist, accompanied by Nadia Reisenberg. What Rockmore achieves in Rachmaninov’s Vocalise is, of course, long-breathed beyond the wildest dreams of any singer, though several friends guessed it was Callas when I played it to them source unknown.
Ultimately, though, it’s back to Messiaen. You can hear Cynthia in a double whammy at the Barbican – Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bucher conducted by Marin Alsop on 4 November, followed by the BBCSO performance of Messiaen’s Turangalila on the 5th. She’s also doing interesting experimental work at Snape Maltings with her nephew, a dubstep guru turned ambient specialist (I was really impressed with what she played us of that). But we have to end with Turangalila, and the loony tune of the ‘Joy of the Blood of the Stars’ movement, which despite its complexity and resources isn’t so very far removed from Vitamines… There are only two movements on YouTube of the amazing Prom in which Cynthia joined Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Andrew Davis and a typically gigantic National Youth Orchestra, but this will do.