Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine…

Before I commence this review, a plea (or two). Firstly, that we never forget that Holst was a truly great composer; nor that 1934 was a devastating year for British music (and for Holst’s close friend, Vaughan Williams): with the simultaneous loss of three of its greatest sons. Admittedly, Elgar and Delius were old men; but Gustav Holst was only fifty-nine when he died. Considering that Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony was premièred when he was seventy (and he went on to write another four…), Holst had only just gotten started. Secondly, that we search out those other ‘English geniuses’ whose names may not so readily trip from our tongues as they should: Edmund Rubbra, Alan Rawsthorne, Malcolm Arnold, Herbert Howells, Cyril Rootham… – and that’s just for starters. There are many, many, many more out there, who – for whatever reason – the mainstream repertoire ignores; but who produced some startlingly beautiful and original music.

Last night was the Orchestra of the Swan’s 21st Anniversary Concert: and it started with the suitably celebratory St Paul’s Suite by that man Holst. I think I must have just sat there with a silly grin on my face (I know my eyes were frequently closed) – this was one of those concerts where the standard of music and playing were so high, so well-matched, that it was a bit like sitting on top of your favourite mountain, gazing at your favourite view… – for this was, as was all of the evening, radiant perfection. (And, since you ask: Skiddaw.)

The final movement of this, The Dargason – especially with its first, extremely gentle rendition of Greensleeves; followed by its repeat soaring across summer wheat fields, swifts a-calling… – was, though, an utter triumph! Everything one could ever want from an English string band… and more. (Which should probably be OOTS’ slogan! Or something.)

But, if Holst’s St Paul’s Suite is guaranteed to bring immediate tears of joy to your face; then Vaughan Williams’ ‘Tallis Fantasia’ (fully Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis) presents a surety of rather a more devastating nature – though no less instantaneous. Twice, now, have I walked into OOTS rehearsing this: and it is one of the many marks of their utter professionalism (and wondrousness) that, no matter how many times they perform it, they will never be content with their interpretation; neither would they ever want it to become lazy, or set in stone. Therefore David spent a substantial amount of time finessing it, in the afternoon: phrases, stresses, new ways of hearing and seeing.

It only dawned on me, in the interval, how cleverly-programmed this concert was, too: demonstrating OOTS’ core strengths – its beautiful, almost-sparse strings (although with the incredible power to become rich and full, when needed; and to blast the roof of Stratford ArtsHouse far into the stratosphere) alone in the first half; before launching a full-frontal, fully-armed attack with its instrumental virtuosity and depth in the second.

Well, after posting my review of Dvořák’s Eighth from Saturday night – and it seems, getting it completely wrong… – it was good to read last night’s programme notes, and find someone who agrees with me that Vaughan Williams’ Fifth is, in all other than name (and timing), a ‘war’ symphony: however, gentle or pastoral it can feel, slotted in between the tirades of the severe Fourth and violent, vehement Sixth. But, perhaps, this is Vaughan Williams’ moment of ‘big stick ideology’: for, to me, after living through a war where he saw most of his friends – most of England’s outstanding artistic potential – slaughtered, the Fourth was his warning that worse was to come; the Fifth, premièred in 1943, his expression of anger, his regret, that no-one heeded that wake-up call, that he did not shout loud enough; the Sixth, the vitriol of an old man, his ‘I told you so’; his exasperation and despair at the repeated horrendous loss of life; the inability to learn lessons, or to put them into action until too late.

He may not have been a practising Christian: but I know (to my own cost) that you can take the chorister out of the cathedral, but you cannot take the cathedral etc.. In Vaughan Williams’ case, despite being related to Charles Darwin, the Church (and the vicarage) ran deep through his veins throughout his life; as did his love of the Authorised Version of the Bible and English church music: especially that of the 16th Century (hence both the ‘Tallis Fantasia’ and the English Hymnal – which he compiled, as well as donated four of his own compositions).

Basing the Fifth on melodies and motifs shared with his later opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress, must also lend it something of a religious perspective… – but, if so, it is one seen through the telescope of a liberal, humanitarian agnostic. But it is there. You can feel it. (Even me. And I’m an atheist.)

A small call out, therefore, to Louise Braithwaite: who opened the third movement, the Romanza – possibly the most beautiful music Vaughan Williams ever composed – with her cor anglais (an instrument at the spiritual heart of this symphony) singing so thoughtfully. Originally inscribed above the score were the words “He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death” – and these fit those few notes so perfectly, you could almost hear them being softly articulated.

Despite their lightness of touch before the interval, the OOTS strings now developed the symphonic richness required of them – although this did not mean any obfuscation of tone, or blurring of clarity. Please don’t expect my usual thorough review, though. I have known and loved this symphony for well over forty years; and have spent two-thirds of a lifetime studying it. Yes, I could write a very weighty tome on it, if required – but this is one work where I really wouldn’t want to make any conscious effort to recall the performance. So I simply closed my eyes; and let its multifaceted, multidimensional glories wash over and through me.

If it had been anything less than a wonderful performance, I know I would have noticed, though. [Sad to report: I once walked out of Britten’s War Requiem, thirty minutes in… – and that is the ne plus ultra of requiems. (And, yes, I know that’s rude. But, seriously, the performance had as much sensitivity as Boris Johnson.)]

I didn’t notice. I came away transformed; transfigured. (I came away with a very squidgy handkerchief. Again.)

All I did notice was the wide space between each instrumental line; the perfect pacing; the sympathetic dynamics; that this was exactly the size of orchestra RVW must have had in mind when he wrote this most perfect music; that he must have known that, one day, these exact musicians would assemble in this very room… – although, of course, you understand, that, until the applause, there was only me there, and the evanescent, incorporeal beauty of interwoven sound… all alone….

All I noticed were those tiny harmonious building blocks: musical motifs reappearing, transforming themselves… fragmenting; inverting; reversing; leaping for joy; scowling with menace; growing into extended melodies, which brought a savage beauty; a numinous tension… that, even now, I feel has not been quite released….

[How can black dots of ink on paper so question the soul – even when, as here, they are sublimated directly into waves of sound by humans so utterly skilful, on machines built by other humans, also gifted beyond belief? Where, in this process, enters the magic, the love, the hand of whatever spirit or god you may believe in, that eventually renders it all so inevitably ineffable…? (I don’t know. I was just immensely grateful to have been there.)]

Thank you, OOTS: every single passionate one of you who made this impossible thing possible….

I said to a friend – and member of the orchestra – the day before the concert, that this was “the second greatest English symphony ever written”. He thought, by this, that I meant the best was Elgar’s First. Actually, I meant his Second. But, after last night – and such a rendition full of belief and immersion; of consideration and rapture… – it’s hard not to consider this the greatest. (In fact, at the moment, I’m struggling to find a contemporary challenger from anywhere that even approaches its overwhelming ‘everythingness’. The gamut of emotions, emotional honesty; of orchestral colour. The dependable melodiousness: especially when surrounded by atonal experimentation… – which is not to say this does not not constantly challenge the ear… – and a tunefulness mostly derived from a couple of short, simple snippets. The steadfast willingness to meet horror, nose-to-nose, without flinching; and to meet it with resolute virtue. The ability to be truthful.)

This was the perfect way to celebrate OOTS’ momentous and hard-won ‘birthday’. With perfect English music… – but with a twist. Not just happy stuff; but a celebration of those artists with the (supposed) stiff upper lip and the whirling brains; the churned souls; and the riven hearts: reaching out into the world around them (and us). Some (only the stupid and selfish), perhaps, might take this to be an occasion for revelling in (that grotesque poison) nationalism. But that would be to mistake – nay, to twist, to contort – the point, completely. (To be blind and deaf, as well as ignorant.)

Music is a universal language: admittedly one consisting of many, many dialects. But it speaks to all mankind – and can never be stopped from doing so. Even if you disagree with me on the meaning, or relative value, of one symphony or another, at least it will have reached your heart and mind; and can be the starting point for an interesting, and lengthy – and hopefully friendly – discussion (perhaps even over a dram or two…). What’ll you be having…?!

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Now is the night one blue dew…

As Louisa May Alcott once said – or words to that effect – you should never meet your heroes; although, mostly, I have found her adage to be quite incorrect. And yesterday evening, in Cheltenham, offered up yet more glorious proof. Ever since chancing upon her divine voice, and exchanging thoughts with her keen intellect and considerate personality – all across the digital divide – April Fredrick has long been someone I have wanted to encounter in the flesh – even if only to hear that voice…

But it is that voice we must pay attention to – I want to say Heather Harper, such is the almost-mezzo evenness (even creaminess…): but this is Janet Baker as soprano… – painting pictures with each word, each note, each pertinent melisma. (April’s microscopic rubato and expression simply on the duplet of “quiet” is transcendent… – and captures in one word her persuasive, apparently guileless rendition: the enunciation of a rich sincerity. The technique is imperceptible.

…unhindered by anything but my own deficient ears.

“That voice”, is so, so pure, though, that the very molecules of air it cuts through seem proud, seem glorified by their elemental excision. It floats, too, when required (and effortlessly, too); but even its most reserved confidences have the power to carry to the Pump Room’s furthest corners (where your weeping correspondent silently sheds a private tear or twelve).

In all my years of music, I have never experienced a timbre quite like this – one with such a direct line to the core of my soul (bypassing my mind; and even my heart). It gives the impression of being another instrument; and yet the meaning emerges crisp from the evening air wrapped around the small child she has so instantly become. The face and body elucidate, too: every sinew in unison; as entranced and enraptured by this music and its performance as those around her. It emerges, newborn, spontaneous; oblivious to the ‘real’ world. This is happening only now, in a newly-created truth: deep in that youngster’s mind.

It is rare that music evokes such true rapture; that its performance is so powerful as to transport us so very far afield.

You hear what I was trying to say, heard my heart as I sang… when I was pouring my whole heart, soul and craft into the intensity, honesty and lived reality of that moment.
– April Fredrick (personal correspondence)

And this work could – surely must – have been written for April (although she tells me that she will understand it more as she herself grows older; and therefore better sing it – which I both believe, and am astonished by). Even in rehearsal, that voice projecting into the orchestra – sharing it with them and David: so that they, too, understand, acknowledge, and share in this child’s transfiguration (April’s word, not mine) – it refuses to be dissipated by Pittville’s Regency dome.

This is surely Barber’s masterpiece – and with an alluring, haunting melody at its heart that recurs both in the piece, and frequently in your mind, willingly, for many days after… – and should therefore be so much better known; more frequently played (especially as in this recording: such an honest, intelligent, compassionate reading from everyone involved – and infused with April’s individual experience and affection). I have to be candid, and say that I found it one of the most difficult musical works and renditions to review: not only because of its piercing beauty, but also the emotive reactions and sensations it continues to provoke in me. My habitual pile of scribbles took a long time to emerge: my pad, at first, left blank at the music’s undeniable impact. I had to stop, and take a long, deep breath of the fresh Warwickshire air… – such is its power.

There is not really that much more I can write here that I didn’t state in my original review of the same piece, above – Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 – recorded live with the same conductor; except to express my continuing astonishment at the stunning range and depth of Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra’s proficiency (even after the remarkable performance of “the saddest music ever written” which preceded it). However, I really should have remembered their soul-bruising rendition of the (so, so much sadder) Largo from Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Even so, I would still have been flummoxed. For, perhaps, this – amongst all their amazing qualities – is their USP? The ability to never stop surprising: no matter what the challenge; the genre; the technical necessities; the force (or lack of it) required.

They are the most perfect accompanists, of course: absolutely in harmony with April; watching every subtle gesture of David’s; struggling, themselves, not to be moved.

What I was even more astonished by was the ‘dimensionality’ of April’s performance. Listening to the CD, you can – somehow – feel her breaching the boundaries, the limits of that medium’s communicability: reaching out to you (just you). And, yes, of course, there is a reason we all travel to concerts to experience the mayfly notes of live music; but, again, she transcended even that: not just opening up that third dimension, but taking us beyond, into something so personal, so intimate. Not just breaking the fourth wall, either; but entering a microscopic fourth dimension, where only you and she exist: bound together by the music and such intense concentration… and, of course, intense and instant belief: a bubble so fragile, and yet so infrangible.

Normally, knowing the tears would flow – and, my goodness, as torrents… – I would close my eyes, and let them come; but, here, I would have been a fool to do so. (I have written so many times, on here, about the difference between ‘acting’ and ‘being’ – but this seemed beyond either. She simply inhabited that small child’s space – her “sphere of possession” – from the very moment the music – and oh, what music! – commenced.)

At the end, the look of loss on her face, of almost astonishment: her lips quivering; biting back the almost-tears. And yet this was the same countenance that had expressed so much anticipatory delight at the arrival of a streetcar. Never has a performance been so immersive. So real. So tangible. The return to stark reality such a painful, electric-shock jolt.

After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

“The saddest music ever written” is, of course, the moniker oft given to the same composer’s Adagio for Strings – which, as gorgeous, and tear-jerking as it is, isn’t even his saddest (for which, parts of Knoxville must be truer contenders… – especially that ending…); and which, possibly because of my hearing loss, I prefer in its original form: as a key part of his enthralling, cyclical String Quartet in B minor, op.11. [By the way: it was even voted the world’s “saddest piece of music” by BBC listeners! (However tempted, I make no, ahem, further comment: lest I am accused of even more snobbery than usual!)] It is an extremely beautiful piece of music, though; and an extremely challenging one with which to open a concert: David requesting stillness from the string players of the CSO – and them rewarding him in kind.

However, as David pointed out, just before the afternoon’s rehearsal began, the climax of the work is in a major key; and is followed by a sequence of major progressions. “All is context”, said April. And perhaps we only hear this music as mournful because we have been told it is so. (The lyrics of Knoxville are similarly equivocal. Those final – perhaps even cruel – words, above, are guaranteed to make one doubt; weep, even. But can you securely capture the emotions behind those tears, in your own words…?)

Used as I am to (and so in love with) the sparseness of the Orchestra of the Swan, this was fabulous stuff. Rich, rich string playing – but still with space between each line: so that melodies emerged deep from within the large expanse. The cellos’ moment (led by Stephen Pett) in the sun was particularly glorious. The low quiet entry after that high, held zenith of throbbing ecstasy thrilling in its contained earthly growl. And, yes, I could hear that famous release as exultant: a cry of pleasure rather than of pain…. [The same could be said, too of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht – or Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – surely?]

Bar this small arrangement of an excerpt, Barber is virtually unknown over here – as are far too many wonderful North American composers: Walter Piston (the king of modern classical orchestration); Virgil Thomson; Elliott Carter; and George Rochberg (try his stunning Fifth Symphony), being a select few, amongst a truly great many worth listening to. And amongst those still alive are some truly legendary names: Ned Rorem; Terry Riley; John Luther Adams; and my current personal favourite, Paul Moravec. We may think of classical music (whatever that is) as a European pastime: but I really hope that David and the CSO are proving, with this series, that there is so much more to it than that; and that it flourishes in all parts of the world. In fact, in some ways, the States are in the lead – if my experiences over there are anything to go by – their symphony concerts attended by audiences not dominated by any particular age-group: no matter the age of the music programmed. If only….

After the interval, following the form of the previous concert (which, sadly, I missed), we were treated to Dvořák’s Symphony No.8 in G. For some reason, apart from the Cello Concerto and the ‘Hovis’ Symphony, mine and Dvořák’s paths haven’t crossed very often; and, when they have, I must admit to being just a tad dismissive. But this was glorious…!

Writing what my dad calls “a good tune” may seem to be a long-lost art, nowadays: but, actually, there are still quite a few composers who do have that knack – and, actually, I think it’s always been a tough one; and therefore possessed by very few. Undoubtedly, Dvořák was one of those lucky minority – like his contemporary, Brahms – and from whom they poured. My problem, perhaps, in the past, is that, because he makes it sound so darned easy, I may have mistaken his greatness for glibness. [It’s a bit like Paul McCartney, I suppose: just because he wrote Mull of Kintyre (with Denny Laine) and The Frog Chorus, we mustn’t forget that he is the genius songsmith behind Scrambled Eggs – nor one of the very greatest bass guitarists. (Sometimes, you just have to look past the surface sweetness to see the deep, deep talent that lies beneath.)] But Dvořák was extremely gifted in the melody department. Not only that, but he knew how to develop, to harmonize, to counterpoint and combine, and to orchestrate those tunes… – all to great effect.

That he wrote the Eighth in around a couple of months is all rather depressing… – especially as he created a whole ’nother type of symphony in the process… – but it makes me wonder why he has never been ranked alongside Mozart as a precipitate creator of genius: a composer who manages to produce melodic and euphonic beauty; so deceptively ‘easy’ to hear; and yet, on paper, truly a work of art – of emotional, harmonic, and instrumental complexity. Studying the score the day before the concert, I gained newfound, and instantly profound, respect – and even affection – for this man.

The opening, plangent, legato, tenor chorale in the clarinets, bassoon, horns, trombone and (especially) cellos – almost Elgarian (and almost a march) in its pathos and richness – is a perfect, ravishing example of the man’s fantastic faculty. Yet there is something hesitant about it; something pleading in all those accidentals. This is both subtle and intensely beautiful; and though marked Allegro con brio, was given enough (somehow almost andante) room to breathe by David – with some lovely harmonic touches from the CSO’s second bassoon and trombone, pizzicato violas and double-basses. A transformation to suspended violins, twinkling flute and piccolo; an almighty suspenseful crescendo… – the template for the whole first movement, really… – but all we are led to is a temporary world of thunderous (but still ravishing) tumult: perfectly portrayed by this incredibly talented orchestra; as was the world of mouthwatering mystery which followed (including some, er, ravishing horn calls).

Even when the CSO’s almighty, muscular, pitch-perfect brass are finally let slip, it is not always inevitable that Pittville’s chandeliers will rattle. But here, only a short, hushed, delusive woodwind passage – underlined by murmuring second violins – separated that crystal from an intense fortissimo storm! Again, though, pianissimo soon asserted its rights; its thrilling dominance. And so it went on: that faux Elgarian tune heralding each ‘half’ of the movement – each one an almighty fight between might and light.

It seems there is a dark side to Dvořák that I was unaware of (even though, all week, people have kept telling me what a “genial joy” this work is… – perhaps my troubles run deeper than I think…?). Even when led to redemption, the music feels uncertain – little scampering demons creating an undertow of menace. And, although the label on the front of my score says “G major”, this symphony begins in the darkest form of G minor I think I have ever heard. And yet, somehow, in amongst all that angst, the composer manages to throw in more melodies (major and minor) than he has a right to – manages to make them all play nice with each other (through sunshine and through rain) – and produces something that, although it has its roots in Beethoven, Brahms, maybe even Mendelssohn (as well as Bohemian folk-song), manages to sound exactly like none of them. [Okay. It’s stupid o’clock in the morning; and I’m struggling to explain my conversion on the road to Cheltenham Racecourse. Try reading this – which I’ve just dug up. (I couldn’t imagine I was the only one having problems.) He just about manages to make a little more sense than I do. (Just.)] By the way, whatever the cause for all that darkness; in the end, the clouds clear; and the impression we are left with, before the Adagio begins, is one of warmth and well-being… – and, miraculously, somehow, it doesn’t feel at all forced. (And there was me thinking it fitted perfectly with the preceding pieces: emotion piled upon emotion.)

This is remarkable stuff – Mahlerian (although with touches of Bruckner – or even Wagner – in the brass) in both scope and fulfilment. Even more so, I suppose, when I opened the score expecting pretty tunes (and, yes, knowing the Cello Concerto, etc.). And, yes, we do get those (with attitude). But first, I have something in my eye I need to sort….

The Adagio, for all its beauty, is just as ambiguous as its predecessor: opening with a gentle ebbing and flowing in the wind and strings; and retaining much of that movement’s closing warmth. But it made me wonder, somehow, if we were in some mystical garden, or perhaps sat upon some enchanted beach. And then, yet more of that sudden unrest! But, just as quickly, all was quiet again.

There is, of course, more of that “scampering”, too, in the strings: but less demonic, this time; and less noticeable… – probably because the flute and oboe (of Catherine Billington and Tessa Pemberton) are singing the most beautiful, almost oriental, descant over them: one that leader Caroline Broekman will soon take, espressivo, for her violin. This time it is Puck who is in charge, maybe? (David would make such a good Robin Goodfellow!) No malevolence, as such; just a little warped fun: “Ill met by moonlight”.

But, forte, now: joined by the trumpets and horns – and then trombones and timpani – perchance the rejoicing rude mechanicals; or the king’s men coming home…? But even their triumph is short-lived; and the strings briefly return us to the opening world of Barber. Pillar and post; post and pillar. Contrast after contrast. And yet… somehow it all hangs together. A Mahlerian horn call: and everything bursts into life – including the opening, and that incredible soaring tune: this time, with as much majesty as it can gather. (The horns were spectacular – even for them – so definitely deserve a namecheck: Tom Kane, Laura Morris, Kelly Haines, and Charlotte Montgomery.)

It is hard not to hear this music as programmatic: as a precursor to the worlds conjured up by Richard Strauss. But we do not need to know what agenda, what hand we are guided by – the music is more than sufficient. Eventually – after more marvellous tunes than you can shake a stick at… – we are led to a misleading build of intense, concentrated, lush Romanticism: which, seemingly, after all that has gone before, now cannot even bear its own weight, as it implodes so slowly that it simply seems to fade with time and tide… the faint calls of seagulls (first heard as the movement opened) echoing overhead leaving you only with shivers at the top of your spine, ending only at the curl of your tiniest toe. Perhaps it was a dream, after all. I certainly didn’t want to waken.

Maintaining the symphony’s general ‘theme’: even the tempo markings of the third movement are antithetical: Allegretto grazioso and (finally) Molto vivace. And, just like the first movement, it begins in G minor, and ends in G major. [Okay, we’re only halfway through: but how anyone could describe this as “cheerful and optimistic” music is completely beyond me. Even if the last two movements consisted solely of the orchestra chanting the word “Happiness”, and laughing in time – which, admittedly, would be quite disturbing… – I cannot see how this symphony could be classed as merry. So far, it has been quite darkly emotional, with moments of surface lightness.]

Anyway… this is a waltz: so a good chance the amount of bonhomie is going to be raised considerably. But… there is a gentle feeling of melancholia keeping the movement grounded, despite the marvellously subtle orchestration (he wrote, with all the passion of a newly-baptized convert). Butterflies – their wings a thousand shades of colour and light – glimmering and glistening through the air, cascading like so many ephemeral waterfalls. The CSO’s violins singing with all their might. [My goodness! Ravel could learn a trick or two from this!]

The trio – if it be such – is a gentle rejoinder; a tad more lyrical. Not too emphatic – an outburst in the strings, trumpets and timpani only really half-hearted and brief: the woodwind gradually building and fading from it – yet giving it the chance to repeat. But, again, it is cut short… – although lingers awhile. The first part of the movement recapitulates, rather traditionally, leading to the Coda – …a very strange beast indeed! Not only Molto vivace, but in 2/4 time – so no place for any kind of self-respecting waltz! But it works! Rapid bars grouped into threes. Crash; bang; wallop! At! Last! Joy! (Hush. Hush. Hush. Whisper. Who. Dares.Hu-uu-ssshhh.)

A little relief then: but any sweetness only masks the core bitterness – it is not the root taste; not the one that will linger long on your palate, once all the others have long faded. Here, perhaps, lies regret – or fading anger. Something lost; but never forgotten. And yet the words most attached to the closing Allegro ma non troppo – a “complex theme-and-variations” are conductor Rafael Kubelik’s:

Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle – they always call to the dance!

And yet what we are about to encounter is tempestuous – emotionally and musically – Prospero – initially – at his most incensed. [Bohemian folk-tunes are obviously carved out of granite, and then dipped in Kevlar. They’re certainly not for the twee and faint of heart.]

And, of course, the CSO’s trumpets (Paul Broekman and Chris O’Riordan) are the best in the world! (Now the chandeliers should be very afraid!) Led in by the gentle timpani beats of Roger Clift (thoroughly enjoying himself, on his pedestal at the back of the stage), the cellos (players of the night, one and all) give voice to one of Dvořák’s most transcendental themes – which, once echoed by the violins, actually turns into something quite vicious, before morphing into a war dance that seems to contain every emotion every experienced. Sung by the flutes, it is much more gentle; but the whole orchestra brings tumult, especially in unison. The brass and timpani foreworn us of mayhem – but it only arrives in instalments.

This is a movement which, in its variations, repeatedly challenges each section of the orchestra – but the CSO pull it off with utter panache. (I know I keep saying this: but they could give many a professional orchestra a run for their money – probably because they never ever rest on their laurels.) There may have been furrowed looks of concentration on every single players’ face… but, my goodness, this was playing of the highest order: batting that tune back and forth precisely; at all volumes; and in all combinations. Fearless, too.

But they saved the best – and loudest – for last (as did Dvořák). After some heart-rending beauty – hinting at all that had gone before – the theme, transformed into a new, breathing entity, back in those hard-working cellos again; the clarinets stating its original form… – finally, all subtlety removed, the CSO’s devilish dervishes hammer us into submission: banishing all thoughts of sadness. And so happiness finally triumphs! Fantastic! Smiles all round – and huge heaps of well-deserved applause.

And yet I went home with Cathy White’s thrumming harp in my ears, and April’s angelic voice…

It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently…

May God bless my people.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

This serious moonlight…

This review is dedicated to Paolo Pezzangora – without whom there would be much less musical magic in the world.

Whoever writes the Orchestra of the Swan’s programme notes is either a genius (doubtful); has a crystal ball – in which case: can I borrow it, please…? – or understands Artistic Director David Curtis’ winsome whimsies far too well – for they had written at the end of the (supposedly) final work of yesterday’s concert at Town Hall, Birmingham: Haydn’s 59th symphony…

Watch David closely, though, the concert – unless he rejigs the programme (again) – may not quite end when you think it does!

…and, of course, he opened with it, didn’t he?!

Mind you: I got absolutely soaked on my short hobble from Snow Hill station – ‘weather bomb’ Doris already making her bad temper known – so the ‘Feuer’ was just what was needed to drive out the damp: especially the rude interruption, in the slow movement coda, from the horns – who then excelled in the final, galloping movement! Even a member of the orchestra said he’d never enjoyed playing a Haydn symphony quite so much! And it was not just invigorating; but truly, musically, thrilling. OOTS excel at many things: but they do seem to have a special affinity with the wit and wisdom of the Father of the Symphony.

I know I have a slight rebellious streak. Playing the piano throughout my childhood, I wasn’t so much interested in perfecting a piece, but re-arranging it: even if it simply meant playing it (usually considerably) faster, or an octave higher. This is why I became a composer: I preferred pushing boundaries and trying new things…. I am conscious that this approach, and the musical style that it produces, may seem challenging – arrogant, even. But, actually, it simply stems from a desire to try new things, rather than something that has already been fully explored and perfected. Why rewrite what has already been done so well?
– Joanna Lee: Commissions accomplished…!

David said that he’d switched the programme around because the composer of the next work, Joanna Lee, shared that affinity – and so it proved to be. Blue Blaze – Dance Suite is the third of four commissions written for the orchestra’s 21st Anniversary Season: all written to match an existing concertante work – in this case, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Four Winds (which would, eventually, close the concert…). Like Paul Moravec, before her, she had removed the oboes and horns from the ripieno (an incredibly sage decision: at least for this venue – see below); although this did not mean that the instrumentation was either lacking in variety or power. In fact, it was difficult to believe, at many junctures, that there were so few players – so few types of player – on stage: such were the variety of sounds conjured into being.

Despite being christened a “Dance Suite”, for me, the constituent movements rapidly materialized as prospective interludes (somewhat like the entr’actes Haydn’s ‘Feuer’ Symphony would become, albeit of a play) for an opera I would love to see and hear. There were distinct characters and leitmotivs in there: just begging to burst out into a broader arena; to tell an even greater story. (The closest analog, I suppose is Peter Grimes – Joanna having mentioned Benjamin Britten as an influence in the pre-concert talk.)

Blue Blaze Ballet, the first “dance’, is a beautiful, heart-rending depiction of dawn; an axiomatic demonstration of why we need such commissions; and why OOTS exists. This, I believe – however wonderful their performances of the ‘classics’ always are (witness the Haydn) – really is their ne plus ultra – although, as David explained, he tries to take exactly the same approach, whatever the age of the work or composer, with every piece of music: going back to first principles with each score; trying to get inside each composer’s head (alive or dead; present or absent); always aiming to tell the music’s ‘story’.

Although I had access to the score, having not made it to the world première in Stratford-upon-Avon, last week, I had forgotten that this movement was “inspired by daybreak at Aldeburgh beach in Suffolk, with its glistening blue sea and sky”. But you didn’t need to know: it was so astoundingly obvious – you were transported there: the shingle digging deep through the soles of your shoes – yet feeling no pain, distracted by the overwhelming beauty which Joanna had captured, to a note.

The entry of each of the soloists was sublime: Phillip Brookes’ bassoon playing the first notes heard, by a whisper. Such a reserved player; and yet the expressiveness (and of my favourite woodwind instrument) stretched effortlessly to the very limit – even in that seven-bar, fading pedal. Sally Harrop’s clarinet and Francesca Moore-Bridger’s horn subtle in their lyrical, slow syncopation. And then, finally, Victoria Brawn’s curlew‑like cry, beneath a suspended high mist of almost inaudible violins. There is no returning from such a piercing of the soul: not just the rising of the sun; the breaking of the day; but the dawning of belief – music that calls to you; calls to you… that makes you belong. And so easily, too.

Why rewrite what has already been done so well?

It therefore doesn’t matter that I cannot manufacture a box to neatly lock this music away in; and then label it. It just is what it is: Joanna Lee’s. All I know is that I was instantly smitten. I was also astonished – upon returning to the score – to discover just how complex and detailed it is, when it produces such apparently ‘simple’ results. Despite all that hard work, this is a creator who obviously understands the decidedly ‘un-simple’ relationship between stave and sound-stage.

The result is almost impressionistic, but with the clarity – and impact – of Sickert or Rodin. (In the score, between each movement, one whole page is given over to a bar marked in each part with a pause. This is a composer who knows David and OOTS as well as her own mind!)

How many ways are there to play a second violin?! I do not know. But if they are not demonstrated in the second movement, Hockley Hip-hop, then I would be surprised. And there may even be a few that are not even mentioned in The Great Book! This was astonishing! (And this section may well end up containing too many exclamation marks!) It also could not have provided more of a contrast with the first – and yet, somehow, miraculously, it did not make a dent in the atmosphere which that had gathered together. (And, no: I do not know how. Some sort of magic, I expect.)

Phillip’s bassoon set off with its funkiness dialled up to eleven. Woodwind instruments are good at this: quirky sharpness, mixed in with a bit of offbeat legato… – and Joanna obviously knows how to elicit the maximum from them: especially with the time-signature changing with each bar-line. A single pizzicato from the first violins emphasizes a single solo note; but the second violins decide that strings just aren’t good enough for them, and start rapping the backs of their instruments with their knuckles! Sensational stuff! And wonderfully inventive! More pizzicatos, and Sally’s clarinet joins in – equally funky; then Victoria’s oboe: a tad more lyrical. Meanwhile, the strings are doing their best Buddy Rich impersonation – and pretty good they are, too (although, occasionally, they appear to forget, and elements of Django Reinhardt slip in)!

By now, Francesca has joined in: stressing certain notes and phrases the other three are tossing about – and there are smiles (mixed in with frowns of intense rhythmic concentration) everywhere. Dynamics were as precise as Audi’s best engineering; and David’s control of tempi – and those complex switches of measure – as lissom as the notes themselves. But it wasn’t all fun. Occasional passages of quiet lyricism crept in – always rapidly dissolving into impish quirkiness, though… – a masterclass in technique for everyone on stage!

We could have done with the cold showers pounding at the windows. But instead, something much, much better – Dunwich Dirge. This was marked “sullen” in the score. But, as dark as it was, it was in no way miserable – but it did begin with that intense dark, espresso blend of string-writing that only the English do so well. It always looks remarkably simple on page – but encapsulates such complex sensations; and has the ability to drag the tears on to your lap before the end of bar four. And then the horn arrives; followed closely by the woodwind – and there’s a veritable puddle.

This was, perhaps, less concertante than the other movements – and yet the horn did lead on occasions: providing more beauty – but of a deeper kind than the opener. Again, the dedication to Britten shone through – no pastiche, or necessary (or voiced) direct quotation (or perhaps too well-hidden for my fading ears) – just the beneficent ghosts of Dennis Brain’s always perfect pitch and tone, and the mellifluence of Peter Pears’ precise pronunciation and explicit emotion, beaming down from above. This was soul-rending stuff. But far, far, far too short.

The finale, Rugrat Rumpus, “inspired by the movement and unpredictable behaviour” of the composer’s two-year-old daughter, was as witty as the second, but perhaps a little more cartoonish. A fortissimo flourish from the wind; a loud pizzicato from the violins and violas; a growl from the cellos and basses; a Gershwin-like glissando from Sally; lots more pizzicatos; a trill from Sally (for suspense) – and, finally, we’re on our way: with a wonderful clarinet solo, which is then taken up by the oboe and bassoon.

This is a virtuosic way to end – and I must have spent most of it with my jaw in that puddle… – but it was great fun! Afterwards, though, it definitely needed an interval, for everyone to recover.

People keep telling me that (what we insist on calling) classical music is on its last legs – but not on this evidence; not on the creative side. This was another – and, for me, the best of the three, so far… – stupendous new work. (And, no, you probably couldn’t dance to it – unless you were Tamara Rojo, perhaps – so why not a ballet, then, instead?) It was another stunning, original, wide-ranging, demonstration of awe-inspiring talent. Gosh, David and OOTS have a good nose for this stuff!

Now, if we could only find a big spigot, somewhere, with a flood of young audience members flowing out the other end, to match…!?

After the interval, we had a gem of an overture by a twelve-year-old. On the evidence of this, he’ll go far. Mozart was his name, and the opera it was written for was Bastien und Bastienne. No, me neither. OOTS gave it the welly and respect they give to everything, though; as they did the Sinfonia Concertante which polished off the afternoon.

There’s a lot of debate about the authorship of this – but the woodwind writing is so perfect and balanced it has to be Mozart’s. And, as you would imagine, the four soloists were once again perfect. I will say one thing about it, though: the move from the central Adagio – one of the composer’s typically beautiful slow movements – to the final Andante con Variazioni reminded me a little of the last two movements of Joanna’s work: the sublime to the hilarious.

I may be misremembering (so I apologize if I am: but it may be that the clarinet player in question was actually telling me of another of his ilk…) – but I think it was Jack Brymer who suggested that the variations of this could be used as a drinking game: lining shots of your favourite spirit up for each orchestral ritornello, so that it gets more rowdy as it progresses. (What the orchestra and conductor are supposed to do, I do not know.) But it does have a tendency to get out of hand if you let it. Although I have to say that everyone involved, yesterday, was remarkably sober! And received the extended ovation they well-deserved! (Back out to meet Doris. Her mood had not improved one jot.)

A long time ago, I mentioned Joanna’s removal of the horns and oboes from Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. Before I go on, I have to say that the horn playing, yesterday was truly remarkable: especially for its accuracy (and I say this as someone who tried to tame the beast; and, after many years, lay badly bruised and defeated…). This is not an easy instrument to master. However, it is also – like all brass instruments – one whose volume ranges from moderately loud to “ouch, I think I’ve lost an eardrum”: even though it is, by far, the quietest (or least loud) of the breed.

As those who frequent it will know, at the back of the Town Hall stage is a solid wall. In other words, the perfect (literal) sounding board for the business end (bell) of the horns. Now, in the suitably bouncy Haydn, this wasn’t really an issue. The symphony is pretty ‘fiery’ – although that’s not really how it earned its nickname. And, in the last movement, they run riot: although it was supposed to be a dialogue with the oboes – but from where I sat, stage right, it sounded quite one-sided: because I was directly in line with the blast from that “sounding board”. Had I been sat stage left, the bodies of the orchestra would have muffled them: and, from experience, all would have been fine. But it wasn’t.

Now I’m presuming that all was well in Stratford ArtsHouse, for the première: as it has curtains; and an empty stage (and I have spies). But I would like to ask that whoever is responsible to, next time, perhaps strategically place a mattress behind them (or a small cushion in them)?! (Actually, all you really have to do, is place them in the middle of the back row, rather than the end.) When you’ve only got a handful of string players, balance is everything. Thank you!