Time to Set Sail!

Our reimagined 90th season has taken us on some wonderful adventures – tangos in Argentina, love songs in Italy, strolling the street of Paris, even beer at Oktoberfest!

But now we’re hitting the high seas and taking a nautical journey in the golden days of transatlantic cruising aboard the RMS Queen Mary.

The concept came from conductor Judith Yan – and from the initial idea of setting sail from Southampton and landing in New York, the concept of a concert on the open ocean became a runaway idea.

Each piece takes you on a beautiful adventure!

Click for Transatlantic Cruise Journey – Click on Sound!



Discovering Ruth Gipps

Music was a more than just a passion for English composer Ruth Gipps: it was a way of being. Born in 1921 to a highly musical family (her mother was the principal at the Bexhill School of Music), she was herself considered an oboe and piano child prodigy. She began composing at age eight, and this first composition of Ruth’s was accomplished enough in its structure and style to be purchased by an audience member who worked for a local publishing house and had heard its debut performance. Despite the piece only garnering a guinea and a half to its composer, Gipps was hooked on giving form to the vibrant music which came to her in waking and in dream.

Ruth’s victory at a concerto competition, accompanied by the Hastings Municipal Orchestra, launched a career filled with highlights (both musical and academic in nature). Enrolling at the Royal College of Music at sixteen years of age, Ruth was privileged enough to study piano with Arthur Alexander and oboe with Leon Goossens. Her composition instructor, for a time, was Ralph Vaughan Williams, and had a tremendous influence on the pastoral elements of her music (in particular her early compositions).

After several successful debut performances of her own works at the Royal College, Ruth was encouraged by Williams to continue her studies abroad. She decided on Durham University, and met her future husband (the clarinettist Robert Baker) shortly before becoming the youngest British woman to ever receive a doctorate in music. This honor was conferred on her for a work she completed shortly before her twenty-sixth birthday, entitled “The Cat”.     

Gipps was fond of creating tone poems, orchestral pieces which are a single movement in length and which are inspired by some sort of rhapsodic theme. As she was establishing herself as a professional instrumentalist and composer, the legendary Sir Henry Wood accepted an invitation to conduct her tone poem “Knight in Armour at the Last Night of the Proms”. The year was 1942, and Ruth’s aspirations could not have been higher.  

Despite her rapidly blossoming career as a multi-instrumental soloist, however, Ruth faced an insurmountable obstacle at the age of thirty-three in the form of a shoulder injury. Refusing to give up on a career filled with musical creation, Ruth poured her heart and soul into conducting and composition for orchestra. It was during this period that she built on what she had learned from Vaughan Williams, refining her skillful use of instrumental color while riding against fads in the musical avant-garde of her day. Ruth would go on to construct five captivating symphonies, which she viewed collectively as her finest musical contributions to the world.

A composer with an intense desire to prove herself through her music, Gipps returned to performance only three years into her shoulder rehabilitation. In March 1945, she performed an outstanding rendition of Glazunov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the City of Birmingham Orchestra. That same evening, conducted by George Weldon, she picked up her beloved English Horn to perform her Symphony No. 1.

At the close of World War II, Gipps’musical interests shifted to reveal a fascination with all things chamber music. She continued to fight for female representation within her orchestral community, as early in her career she had been “affected strongly by discrimination against women in the male-dominated ranks of music (and particularly composition), by professors and judges as well as the world of music criticism”. She founded the London Repertoire Orchestra in 1955 to widen the musical range and expertise of budding professionals on instruments of all types. Her Clarinet Sonata, Op. 45, was lauded in 1956 as a stellar achievement for the genre, one that won her the Cobbett Prize of the Society of Women Musicians.

Conducting the Pro Arte Orchestra the following year, she spent the next four years working tirelessly on musical projects until founding the Chanticleer Orchestra in 1961.  The mandate of this new orchestra was a simple, but meaningful one: the professional ensemble would include a work by a living composer in every program performed. This venture cemented Gipps’ international reputation and offered her the opportunity to claim a faculty post at London’s Trinity College. After seven years at Trinity, Ruth returned to her alma mater (The Royal College of Music) to teach for a decade after her appointment as chairwoman of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain.

The last twenty years of Ruth’s life were spent teaching composition at the Kingston Polytechnic of Gypsy Hill and adjusting to retired life in Sussex. Passing away from cancer and stroke related symptoms in 1999, Gipps was mourned by all of Britain: they had lost a quintessential compositional genius and firebrand personality which could not be replaced. But Ruth Gipps lives on in her captivating legacy of music and in her conviction that the great female composers of the future deserve a supportive platform upon which they can change the course of musical history. 

A trip on the RMS Queen Mary!

The story of the ocean liner RMS Queen Mary is one whose length and grandeur nearly rivals that of the ship herself. On the day she was unveiled to the world, King George V of England proclaimed enthusiastically that “Today we come to the happy task of sending on her way the stateliest ship now in being. It has been the nation’s will that she should be completed, and today we can send her forth no longer a number on the books, but a ship with a name in the world, alive with beauty, energy and strength! May her life among great waters spread friendship among the nations!”

The RMS Queen Mary sailed as a vessel of the Cunard Cruise Line from 1936 to 1967, a proud ocean liner that sped across the waves to deliver passengers from England to New York and back again. She held a nautical speed record unbroken for fourteen consecutive years, and after a lifetime of successful jaunts across the Atlantic now sits permanently moored as a historic hotel and tourist attraction in Long Beach California. Not a bad retirement for one whose career was as busy and exciting as that of the RMS Queen Mary. But what was it really like living aboard this luxurious cruise ship during her heyday? What were the amenities, what cuisine were passengers treated to, and what sorts of dignitaries and celebrities graced the deck of that mighty vessel?

Those brilliant individuals responsible for the Queen Mary’s construction spared no expense in outfitting her with every amenity passengers of the day might require. Advertisements from the thirties proudly boast of the liner’s features, which included “two indoor swimming pools, beauty salons, libraries and children’s nurseries for all three classes, a music studio and lecture hall, telephone connectivity to anywhere in the world, outdoor paddle tennis courts and dog kennels.” Many of the public rooms on board were air-conditioned, and it was rumored that the cabin-class swimming pool spanned over two decks in height! The ship itself boasted a massive cargo storage which accommodated scores of automotive vehicles, towered three stories in height, and was the first of its kind to be equipped with a Jewish prayer room.

Cruising the oceans can produce in a person the most ferocious appetite, so its no surprise that Cunard sent world-class chefs aboard the RMS Queen Mary to prepare the finest delicacies for patrons to enjoy at breakfast, luncheon, and dinner alike. Had you been aboard the ship on June 6th, 1952, your breakfast options would have included Apples, Oranges, Stewed Figs, and assorted fruit juices. Eggs (Fried, Turned, Boiled, or Scrambled) accompanied by Broiled Breakfast Bacon and Home-made Brawn were followed by Buckwheat and Griddle Cakes drenched in Maple and Golden Syrup. Passengers were invited to partake of Soda Scones and a variety of coffees, as well as heavenly slices of Hovis Bread.

Starving passengers at lunch time on December 26th, 1940 were served Consomme Chiffonade, Potage Chesterfield, and hearty Beefsteak and Kidney Pie. Others dined upon Broiled Haddock with Sauce Robert, Baked Jacket and French-Fried Potatoes, and topped it off with a mouth-watering Sago Custard Pudding. Children on board (in addition to the menu items above) were given ample helpings of Ice Cream and Wafers as a special treat. But what of dinner? On August 8th, 1937, passengers of the Queen Mary who fancied an evening bite to eat tucked into Honey Dew Melon Frappe, Herrings a la Tomate, Byron Salmon, and Chicken Halibut with Sauce Victoria. Still others dined on Roast Quarters of Lamb with Mint Sauce, Sweetbread Croquettes St. Cloud, and Egg Plant Lyonnaise. No matter what era you spent aboard the RMS Queen Mary, you were always treated to the finest cuisine possible.

In the three years following her maiden voyage, word of the grand passenger experiences aboard the RMS Queen Mary quickly reached the ears of celebrities and royalty alike. Actor/comedian Bob hope and actor/dancer Fred Astaire both took a voyage aboard the RMS Queen Mary in 1939, and were followed soon after by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It is maintained that he signed the D-Day Declaration while onboard, and considered the ship his “headquarters while at sea.” Nowadays, the Queen Mary hotel’s restaurant, Sir Winston’s is named after that famous dignitary (as is one of their luxury rooms, the Churchill Suite).

Singer Bing Crosby traveled overseas with the U.S.O aboard the RMS Queen Mary to boost troop morale during World War II, and Dwight Eisenhower sailed with his wife on the luxury liner on September 27th, 1946. Both Elizabeth Taylor and Clark Gable made the list of famous figures to grace the deck, with the former making outrageous demands in 1947 on behalf of her two poodles, and the latter delaying departure time by nearly 20 minutes in 1948 to bid adieu to his love interest who was a passenger. The then Duke & Duchess of Windsor (Edward VII & Wallis Simpson) used the ship for travel quite frequently and referred to the vessel as “their ship”. Edward VII’s mother was the namesake of the ship after all! The couple’s favorite room, M58 on the Main Deck, was renovated and is now referred to as the Windsor Suite. Their voyage in 1948 saw them bring 120 pieces of luggage on board along with their dogs.  

In 1953, the actress Greta Garbo decided to return home from a trip abroad in Europe using the RMS Queen Mary, and the following year the deck was graced by The Queen Mother herself. 1957 saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s star Audrey Hepburn travel aboard the vessel with her husband Mel Ferrer on their way to Europe for round two of a honeymoon. The RMS Queen Mary’s final claim to having a brush with fame came ten years later, when Lynne Redgrave (the sister of actress Vanessa Redgrave) took part in the ship’s final voyage to California. After a lifetime of dutiful service, it was decided that the RMS Queen Mary would live out the rest of her days in style. She entertains famous persons from across the globe to this day, and the dock at which she is permanently moored is protected indefinitely as a world heritage site. We salute you, RMS Queen Mary!

Copland’s Quiet City

A composition for trumpet, English Horn, and string orchestra, Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City” took the composer two years to write before it could be pronounced complete. Receiving its premiere on January 28, 1941, the piece was performed by conductor Daniel Saidenberg and his Saidenberg Little Symphony in New York City. However, this was not the official debut of “Quiet City” as a musical entity, nor was it the first iteration penned by Copland. The truth about this classic American composition would not surface for another seventy years.

In its original form, Copland’s “Quiet City” served as incidental music for playwright Irwin Shaw’s play of the same name. As the play was a besieged by incredible bad luck (it was regarded as a flop and consequently never ran past previews), Copland quietly buried his original score for trumpet, saxophone, clarinets and piano until he could resurrect it in a completely re-orchestrated form. It is speculated that Copland, trusting that his score had potential, wanted to distance his composition from being associated with the disastrous Shaw production. Copland had written a letter to a friend, the composer Virgil Thomson, around this time stating bleakly that “My career in the theater has been a flop.”

Aaron Copland, 1956 by Yousuf Karsh

Copland himself maintained in his autobiography that this original version of “Quiet City” was “an attempt to mirror the troubled main character of Irwin Shaw’s play”, who had chosen to reject his religious and artistic convictions by changing his name, vocation, and marrying for money. His conscience does not rest, however, and the man is plagued by the memory of his brother’s trumpet playing, a sonic recollection which refuses to silence itself as the man pursues a life of outward happiness and material wealth. Copland continues, remarking that “Quiet City seems to have become a musical entity, superseding the original reasons for its composition…”. Indeed, the modern listener does not require the original context of Shaw’s play to appreciate the richly textured night life of Copland’s musical New York.

But while Copland acknowledged the score’s original form and purpose, the existence of said original could not be proven to have existed without the discovery of a physical proof. That manuscript was unearthed by saxophonist and composer Christopher Brellochs in 2011, and he refused to rest until the original version of Copland’s Quiet City was recorded and debuted for the world. As he pursued his doctoral studies at Rutgers University, Brellochs had been searching for dissertation topics with an advisor, Paul Cohen. When Paul recalled that he had in his possession a copy of an old Copland score, one which had been given to him by an acquaintance at the Library of Congress, Brelloch knew precisely what topic his dissertation would cover. In Cohen’s words, the original score “had been collecting dust for years”, and it included new melodies which admirers of Copland’s music would never likely have heard had they not attended the handful of preview performances that Shaw’s play was able to withstand before folding entirely. 

The delicate pulsating tones of the trumpet and English Horn solos certainly paint a formidable picture of New York, with all its evening grandeur. Copland weaves what Brellochs refers to as “a goldmine of wonderful themes and melodies” throughout, a thoughtful musical commentary on the life of a city that is internationally renowned as never sleeping. While the original score may have explored the world of this failed play in greater detail, Copland more than makes up for lost context with a perfectly distilled masterpiece. In every painted street-corner, every dimly-lit lamppost, and every dusky skyscraper, Copland captured the heart of New York and enshrined it in his “Quiet City” for all time.

Sibelius’ Suite Mignonne

Regarding Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s fascination with nature, his biographer, Tawaststjerna famously wrote that “even by Nordic standards, Sibelius responded with exceptional intensity to the moods of nature and the changes in the seasons: he scanned the skies with his binoculars for the geese flying over the lake ice, listened to the screech of the cranes, and heard the cries of the curlew echo over the marshy grounds just below Ainola. He savoured the spring blossoms every bit as much as he did autumnal scents and colors.” Such a sentiment is echoed by no piece of Sibelius’ more than his Suite Mignonne, originally scored for two flutes and string orchestra. 

The first movement of the suite, entitled “Petite Scene” opens with a theme of a delightful hesitancy, and short dance-like passages weave their way between effectively placed moments of stillness. The effect conjured is not entirely dissimilar to watching a small bird flit and hop its way through overgrown patches of marshland. The brilliance of this movement lies in its ability to convey the refreshing breezes of the open country air while seamlessly transitioning into the following movement, “Polka”. 

The second movement of the Mignonne Suite truly captures the essence of its namesake, for “mignonne” is French for “daintily small” or “delicate” depending on the context in which it is used. As the birds from movement one grow chattier and bolder in nature, the melody becomes increasingly fixated on their pizzicato chirping. Sibelius’ writing for the cello in this section is quite challenging, as the part they play is very exposed and requires each cellist to create a contrasting texture for the lines of those who are bringing the “birds” to life.

Sibelius gave his son-in-law (the cellist Jussi Jalas) some directions for maximizing his expressive efficiency when performing this suite. The composer was insistent that “there should be a brief pause before the last eight bars of the first movement” and that “the Polka should be played slowly and without excessive stretto at the end.” He advised young Jussi that the suite’s final movement “should be rhythmically straight, without ritardando.”

And does this “Epilogue” ever fly without ritardando! The birds take to the sky, one by one, and the perfectly timed pauses in the string section work to effectively build excitement. A dream-like passage focuses our attention on the hazy clouds above the marshland before we are thrown once again (if only briefly) into the busy and joyful world of our avian friends. This “Epilogue” functions as a partial recapitulation of the “Petite Scene” to perfectly frame the lighthearted Polka. Sibelius’ romantic appraisal of the great outdoors is alive in his music, and it speaks to us in every season we can gaze out from our windows (be they frosted or smattered with rain) to see birds on the wing. 


Elgar’s Serenade for Strings

Edward Elgar’s Op.20 “Serenade for Strings” was written in March of 1892 and was first performed by the Worcester Ladies’ Orchestral class later that year. Musicologists posit that this enduringly popular offering from Elgar was written in an earlier period of the composer’s life, and that it is older even than his Wand of Youth suites. The assertion that the Serenade for Strings is a reworking of an earlier work is given credibility mainly by the characteristics of young Elgar’s compositional style which make it up: there is a youthful charm supported by a bedrock of ingenious musical machinations and textures. A lifelong perfectionist, it has been rumored that “Serenade for Strings” was one of the first pieces with which Elgar “professed [him]self truly satisfied.” 

The Serenade itself is set in E minor, utilizes a string orchestra as its musical vehicle, and is separated into three short movements: “Allegro Piacevole”, “Larghetto”, and “Allegretto”. A musical landscape of hills and valleys emerges as we hear the first movement sing out its compelling central theme. The rhythmic figure of this movement is characterized by a wind-blown momentum which propels one’s musical expectations towards the opening of the Larghetto.

Easily the most mature movement of the three, the brilliance of the Larghetto rests in its simple grandeur, and the subtle ways Elgar shifts tonalities to illustrate several distinct and intimate moment of warmth. It was the stylistic qualities of the Larghetto which signaled to music historians and researchers that this work had existed in a previous iteration. Although lamentably brief in terms of duration, this movement remains one of the most popular pieces of musical writing Elgar ever committed to paper.

The final movement of this piece (Allegretto) develops a melody which possesses a great sense of yearning and is unashamed of its romantic character. The violin comes alive in this movement, its song gifted points of luminous emotional expressivity by Elgar’s sensitive compositional insight. Beginning in 12/8 time, the measure alters to 6/8 near the movement’s conclusion in order to signal the reappearance of the Allegro Piacevole’s main theme.

Elgar dedicated his “Serenade for Strings” to an acquaintance of his, the organ builder and amateur musician Edward W. Whinfield. “Serenade for Strings” received its first public performance in Antwerp, Belgium on 21 July 1896. Although Edward Elgar felt for much of his life an outcast, there is no doubt that his Serenade for Strings represents an early triumph in a series of well-deserved compositional victories. Not unlike a sunset viewed from aboard a transatlantic cruise, Edward Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings” paints the mind of the beholder with touching shades of pink, orange, and gold.