Sunday, 30 April 2017

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave…

You have to have a lot of faith in an orchestra to open proceedings with something as challenging as Copland’s Appalachian Spring suite. This is no warm-up for what follows; there is nowhere to hide; and you therefore need an ensemble at the very top of its form from opening bar to last. So… perfect for the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra, then! And they were perfect for it, too: special praise going to the athletic percussion section (who would not be allowed to even think about relaxing until the interval) and flautist Catherine Billington… – and, of course, one of the greatest brass sections this side of Brighouse. But every single player deserves as much commendation – if only for the number of tears shed throughout. (Yes, I know I am a soppy bugger: but the instant creation of such matchless atmosphere would surely have softened the sternest heart. This really was that remarkable.)

David Curtis’ whole modus operandi stands atop a steadfast foundation of trust and such faith: the attention paid to his every gesture – however subtle – shaming more complacent orchestras (and conductors). But it is from this unassailable bedrock that all the other magic grows: including the uncanny ability to transport an audience as one in space and time. Early 19th-century Pennsylvania has never sounded – or felt – so appealing.

Copland’s ballet is, for me, one of the man’s (and the American century’s) greatest accomplishments: a masterpiece of subtle portrait and landscape painting that I don’t think he ever really surpassed (although Rodeoto be played by the CSO in July – comes close for wit and bravado; but not, I think, quite the tenderness, the poignancy, found here…). And, no matter how many times I hear it, it maintains its freshness; its inventiveness. But it has to come from the heart (meaning courage and boldness; as well as emotion and compassion). Like this did….

Another work that requires such a disposition is George Gershwin’s equally astonishing Rhapsody in Blue. Again, the orchestra delivered with all their might and skill – up there with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in my favourite recording, with Leonard Bernstein. (I’m running out of ways to praise this CSO: so an almighty comparison like this will have to suffice.)

However hard they tried – although no part of the defect lies with them… – they could not, though, coax the same attitude or temperament from soloist Lucía Caruso….

I was too reticent, last time: not even mentioning her name. [It will be interesting – but, sadly, not with this orchestra – to hear this piece again in the hands of someone who, I believe, plays for the love of the music. Having witnessed said pianist play an excerpt (in this very room) as encore, there is little doubt in my mind that it will be a revelation.] Her playing, though – to me – seems more about visual effect than emotional affect – and, to be blunt, leaves me cold. [Only after posting this review did I realize that what was really missing was – pure and simple – joy….] Not only does every single phrase sound (and look – intentionally or not) like it is hard work – indeed, a struggle (perhaps stretching her technique to the limits) – but there appears to be no effort made to establish rapport (or even eye-contact) with David: her head buried in the keyboard, when it is not being tossed back, or checking that her hands haven’t flown to some distant corner of the Pump Room, as a result of her vacuous (and some might suggest vain) chironomy.

Were it not my instrument, I may have been (a jot) less critical: but this is not my sort of music-making, either; and there is certainly no need to overdramatize the rendition of a score which has excitement inherent in every note (and to its cost). A shame, really: because the CSO were so much more than convincing – Janet McKechnie’s wonderfully seedy clarinet trill and glissando dumping me immediately in some smoky corner of a downtown speakeasy; Paul Broekman’s wha-wha-muted trumpet then pushing me back in my chair until that wonderful trio of almost guttural crescendoed brass chords finally released me in the run-up to that incredible adrenaline-rush of an ending.

They were the resident club band par excellence – not only lending support, when required, but throwing all caution to the wind, just as the score requires. That this was the same orchestra that had earlier broken my heart with its portrayal of Appalachian love and landscape was more than remarkable; and, as much as I continually rave about their accomplishments, I do not believe that they will ever cease to astonish me.

After the interval (when I presume the whole orchestra was replaced by clones: such was the energy expended in the first half), a work I knew nothing about, and had never even heard before: Dvořák’s incredibly gripping Seventh Symphony.

Sometimes, there is nothing better than to have music wash over you with no preconception as to how it should be; and this disposition was rewarded with another incredibly passionate performance – but without all that emotion making the slightest dent in the orchestra’s wonderful, cohesive technique. The woodwind entry at the beginning of the Poco adagio was remarkable for its ultra-precision – and yet the pervasive sense of spiritual comfort (the orchestral equivalent of a warm, extended hug) this movement enveloped me in was intensely moving. The Good Lady Bard was similarly affected by the succeeding Scherzo – the whole work so perfectly in tune with the CSO’s unique blend of talent and insight. (David was almost balletic on the podium: more evidence of the strong relationship, the bond, which has developed between him and this unique orchestra.) This was music that grabbed you and didn’t let go – and, as all such engrossing performances must be… over far, far too soon.

CSO audiences are a select bunch, on the whole; but we all knew what treats had been served up – and how! I come away from most – not all – concerts abuzz: the energy so generated more than enough to propel me home, and through a first draft (at least) of a review. But this was – indefinably – more propulsive than most: pushing me beyond the place where words skip easily from lip to fingertip. The lack of quantity, I hope, is therefore compensated by my sheer delight – which, soloist aside, I hope beams from the page as much as my smile still does from my face.

Such joy, I think, would be diluted by my usual analysis. And, to be honest, I’m not all that keen on trying to get at the heart (although that word, in itself, is possibly clue enough) of this concert’s all-encompassing ‘specialness’. I had gone expecting a dip in my interest after the interval – which had not come to pass. And, once there, I had believed that a mundane solo performance would tarnish that work’s glittering reverberations. But I was wrong there, too. So, best to leave un-analysed; and just revel in the continuing glow. A luminosity that, as I write, I think even the impending sunrise will struggle to compete with. We shall see….

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Faith, I’ll bear no base mind…

It is seven months and six days since I last donned my fervent walking boots and headed out of the front door in search of the spiritual nourishment only nature can provide – the act of doing so more psychologically and physiologically strenuous than I had initially envisaged. But such challenges are there for us to subjugate… if we are to be alive to our values (and alive for them). Should we let either external constraints or internally-driven apprehensions suppress (or even oppress) our compelling predilections and true-hearted desires, then surely our very identities and individualities are at risk of corruption or cessation.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Once More, with Feeling…!

Before you is something of a duality: firstly, it is one of the greatest chamber orchestras in existence; secondly, it is a group of twenty-odd people with centuries of musical experience, megatons of knowledge, and infinite willingness… all with the ability to help you achieve greatness. Trust them, respect them, communicate with them – kiss their feet, if necessary: because only rarely in your career will you be handed such wonders – and work with them. Involve them; ask them for their thoughts – and take them seriously; put their ideas into action. Let them see your shared belief in the ability to turn all those dots and lines into something capable of ripping open souls (if not vortices in the space-time continuum). Listen and learn – for if you do not, bad things will come to pass (which they did – by my standards, anyway).

Arrive on your mighty steed of arrogance, and tell them what to do… – well, being professionals of the highest calibre, that is exactly what they will do. Nothing more, nothing less. However – to them… – stupid or ridiculous, or just plain wrong, they will obey your instructions to a T. But you might – because you thought you knew best: that conductors must lay down the law, as well as the beat… rather than be an equal and collaborate… – as well have programmed a bunch of robots. You will not have access to their hearts and brains; nor will you be able to share in their bountiful wonders.

Of course, treat them like a musical instrument, with fixed gradations of volume, and lashed to a metronome… – yes, you will make music; but it will in no way be musical. (Yes, it was technically brilliant, but….) Love them as a living organism; treat them as such – not as some starved dancing bear with mange – but as human beings with emotions and flaws (just like you) – if you open yourself up to them: and only then will you be rewarded.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

There is no passion to be found playing small…

Two tantalizing prospects lured me to last night’s concert… – that of seeing and hearing the Orchestra of the Swan with a change of conductor; and witnessing that conductor – Julian Lloyd Webber – in his new element: that of (to use his own word) “accompanist”, rather than the accompanied. Having only witnessed him before as cellist (and one of the greatest) – but, luckily, been privy to his views on one of his new roles – I was rather intrigued.

There was a third element, I suppose: in that Mozart never having composed music for solo cello, this would also be the first time I would witness him immersed in this most beloved of composers (a kissed score at the end the perfect seal of this most wonderful partnership).

It was impressive – no doubt having been on the receiving end so very often… – how clear his instructions were, in rehearsal: both spoken and signed. So clear, that the dynamics (and crispness) he immediately provoked from the OOTS strings in the opening Allegro of Eine kleine Nachtmusik were incredibly and wonderfully fresh – vigorous even. He is a lithe big friendly giant of a man; and, even without a podium, loomed over the strings as if his arms would reach to the back desks. Never threateningly, though. It was almost as if he were embracing them….

This is a string section, of course – albeit with a scattering of fresh faces – more than capable of playing this work without guidance; and yet Julian quickly stamped his mark on what is always a watchful and obedient ensemble. The opening movement was therefore electrifying: pulling individual lines out for emphasis; snapping entries into place.

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.)