Saturday 25 January 2014

Oliver Zeffman and Bartholemew Lafollette

Oliver Zefman and the Melos Sinfonia
Oliver Zefman and the Melos Sinfonia
The Melos Sinfonia, conductor Oliver Zeffman, are giving a concert at LSO St Lukes on Friday 31 January 2014 performing a fascinating programme which includes Myaskovsky's 27th Symphony and Andrzej Panufnik's Cello Concerto (with Bartholemew Lafollette as soloist) as well as Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture.

Bartholemew Lafollette
I met up with Oliver and Bart to learn more. Not only is the Panufnik performance one of the first events in this year's centenary celebrations but Oliver very proudly tells me that it will be the just third UK performance and only the seventh world-wide, the last one being in 2000. Bart, who is playing the solo part, describes it as an extremely evocative work with lots of colours to play around with. There are only two movements, and Bart says that his only complaint is that he wishes there was a third. Like much of Panufnik's writing, it is a very mathematically logical work and both movements are palindromes!

Bart describes it as not the easiest work to play but very well written. Panufnik wrote the work for Rostropvich and he says that it very much feels like it really was written for the cello. It was one of the last pieces that Panufnik ever wrote and he died before the premiere (something which links the work to the Myaskovsky)

Myaskovsky's music is perhaps even less well known in the UK. Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881 - 1950) was significant 20th century Russian composer, sometimes called the father of the Russian symphony. and his 27th Symphony is considered his greatest work and is his last.orchestral work. His music is in fact rarely done in Russia. Oliver initially planned the symphony because of a request from the grandfather of a friend, but Oliver adds that the symphony is also an excellent work and in fact the Melos Sinfonia's performance will be the work's UK premiere.

One of the challenge of presenting such unusual repertoire is getting hold of the performing material. Unable to hire the parts in the UK, Oliver found that the German publishers would not hire to the UK and he would have had to buy the material. Luckily Oliver is currently studying in at the St Petersburg Conservatory and was able to borrow a set of parts from there, though even that was a challenge as the Violoncello and Double Bass parts were missing and needed to be sourced elsewhere.

Oliver formed the Melos Sinfonia in 2010 when he was still at school. He admits that their first concert was probably not very good, saying that since then both he and the orchestra have got better. He adds depreciatingly that at that age it was hardly likely that someone would come and ask him to conduct the LSO.  He is full of praise for the current incarnation of the Melos Sinfonia with many of the personnel playing in ensembles such as the Britten-Pears Orchestra. As all the players are busy training and with careers, the performances tend to be in the holidays. They have so far performed eight concerts and two operas (including The Bear goes Walkabout, see my review). Oliver has exciting plans for the summer, subject to the necessary fund-raising and they have recently become a charity.

Bart was born in Philadelphia and came over at the age of 13 to study at the Menuhin School. After six years at the school and eight at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama he is still here. He is based in London and now has UK residency and teaches at the Menuhin School. When I ask if it was a big thing, at 13, to come and study in a foreign country he says that it didn't seem so at the time. The common language helped, making things feel less foreign. But he realised how bit a deal it was as he got older.

When I ask which cellist Bart admires most he names Daniil Shafran, a Russian cellist who died in 1997 (so Bart never got to meet him). Shafran's career wasn't as big as Rostropovich's, but he has had something of a renaissance in the last 10 to 15 years.

Oliver started out playing the violin in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, but he thought that conducting looked more fun, so had lessons. He is studying History and Russian at Durham University, and is currently on a year out studying at St. Petersburg Conservatoire which he loves. He enjoys being able to devote his time primarily to music, particularly in a different culture to the UK. The style of teaching is different to the UK, in Russia you devote most of your time to your primary study whereas in the UK there is a great deal of harmony and theory as well as practical. But Oliver talks approvingly of how much better it is to learn conducting in front of an ensemble, rather than standing in a room with two pianists.

One of the advantages of St Petersburg is the large number of performances, though Oliver admits that the standard can be uneven because of the sheer number of performances that ensembles give. Students get in at a discount price but even here, Russian culture intervenes and how much you pay depends who is on the door.

Both performers are extremely enthusiastic about their programme, an enthusiasm which is infectious. The works being performed have an interest from the point of view of their rarity value, but after talking to Oliver and Bart some of their enthusiam rubs off.

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