Wednesday, 12 July 2017

In full glory reflected now shines in the stream…

The first thing that would have struck you on entering Stratford ArtsHouse, last night, was that there were a lot more chairs laid out for the Orchestra of the Swan than perhaps was usual. This was to be a big concert in many ways: but the maximum volume output was perhaps the most noticeable – although David Curtis’ smile, conducting the first movement of Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from RodeoBuckaroo Holiday – wasn’t that far off from matching it. (And neither were some of his more demonstrative gestures!)

What a great piece of music to pull you away from the miserable grey wetness of a Warwickshire evening: especially when played with such verve – and truly astonishing precision! We were now on the far side of The Pond (in a ‘wild west’ where it never rains); and we would not leave America all evening – the second Rodeo movement, Corral Nocturne, truly pulling us in (if not lulling us into lovelorn dreams of our own).

Saturday Night Waltz – a self-styled “Texas minuet” – after its shockingly rude awakening – is just as beautiful (if not more so): the violins (under leader Fenella Humphreys) getting a chance to shine, before the woodwind dominate the central trio – slower and more luscious; and just as romantic.

The final movement, Hoe-Down, starts as it means to go on, though; and marks the birth of every ‘Western’ movie soundtrack ever produced. It is a thing of unmitigated joie de vivre and controlled ‘rough-and-readyness’ (albeit requiring a huge amount of concentration from its players). [“This is about cowboys,” laughed David. “It’s not sophisticated stuff!” (Neither was the too-early “bravo!” from Yours Truly: so deeply immersed in the music that I had forgotten the movement’s heffalump trap. David and OOTS – God bless them all – just grinned, and carried on. Consummate professionals all.)] And we were thus rewarded with the ride of our lives! (It’s a good job the piano had to be moved: giving us a chance to get our breath back; and me to lose some of the colour from my blushing face….)

Performing with David and Orchestra of the Swan is unlike playing with anyone else. The pure spirit and love that they have for what they are doing and their ability to transfer that love directly to their audience through their music is amazing.
– Maisie Jeynes: Piano prodigy… joins Orchestra of the Swan at Stratford Artshouse

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote of the pianist featured in the above interview:

Here [playing a self-arranged shortened version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue…] was music that emanated from [his] heart. The freedoms elicited from such syncopated splendour were given full rein. Here was a young man exploring his heritage, revelling in it, showing us how much it means to him. My stretched heartstrings burst with the truthfulness of it all – a conjunction of sorts. The right man for the job, you could say. Skill; a belief in digging deep into a score, researching its composer, its origin… before even setting it on the piano; a rugged determination “to bring something new to the piano… I don’t know yet what that might be”; a willingness to listen to everyone around him – all combined with something special that may take years to be defined.

Six months later

He brought with him an essential piece of musical Americana – Gershwin’s affecting Three Preludes. I love these pieces – syncopated soundscapes, if you will… – but [he] obviously has them flowing through his veins. From the opening con licenzia blues motif to the closing arpeggiated flourish, he exhibited impeccably-controlled emotion: wonderful, unhurried builds underwritten by flawless, unassailable technique. His touch was exquisite and sure: the virtuosity restrained but effective. There is obviously a great deal of confidence: but it is almost as if it is internalized – only the results are allowed to show. The upshot is a form of strongly-held conviction, it seems to me, rather than overtly-expressed boldness. It is also mesmerizing to see, and to hear.

…and finally this…

There is no doubt – both from last year’s concerts, and last night’s – that he is more than capable of producing great, involving solo performances: from ancient to modern; from Bach to Matthews. But such collegiate music-making as was now required certainly leads to more responsibility – and a crucial need to not only keep abreast of your fellow players, but to be truly engaged in what I can only describe as ‘decision-making on the fly’. In some ways, having to use this ‘sixth sense’ is a tougher task than ploughing a lone, solo furrow. Whatever his future, there is no doubt it is exceeding bright.

You’ve probably guessed (or followed the embedded links to discover) that I was writing about Thomas Nickell – who is OOTS’ resident (American) pianist for the next couple of weeks. January’s chamber concert had demonstrated a visible increase in the maturity and self-awareness he had previously shown: especially in the ‘exposure’ afforded by the Mozart concerto (surrounded by a quintet of some of OOTS’ best string players); and I wondered if this growth had continued – especially as he was here to play the full Rhapsody in Blue with the orchestra. (Thomas may be from New York; but – not having been there myself – I have to say that the detailed pictures this music draws, for me, are firmly placed in the late-night – somewhat not quite as reputable as you had expected… – blues clubs, south of the city of Chicago.)

From the brief lunch-break piano-only play-through, it was obvious that he had brought a great deal more investment, emotion, happiness and humour to the work than my previous, joyless, experience of it – that it really was in “the hands of someone who, I believe, plays for the love of the music”.

It helped, of course – when rehearsals started – that OOTS were doing their best impersonation of playing in some dark, smoke-clouded dive somewhere downtown… – from Sally Harrop’s initial, wonderfully seedy clarinet trill and glissando; to the flutter-tonguing and muted wha-wha-ing of the trumpets (thankfully, including the singular Hugh Davies…) and trombones; and the fantastic energy of the percussion section. Gosh, it felt good! [And Thomas – when not buried in the keyboard complexities required by Gershwin – kept smiling! (I still don’t know how you can play so many notes at once, and appear relaxed. It’s obviously a gift. (One used with great wisdom.))]

The actual performance was, therefore, not surprisingly, stunning for its emotion and pizzazz… – as well as the technical prowess both required and demonstrated. And one crucial thing that was more notable than in previous concerts was Thomas’ eagle-eyed observance of David and the orchestra. This is a complex work, with many piano solos meshing awkwardly with orchestral entries – and yet they were all pulled off with aplomb. They were also made to look – if not exactly easy – then easily surmountable…. [I honestly don’t think we should use words such as ‘wunderkind’ or ‘prodigy’… – Thomas is simply a great musician: someone who composes, plays, and therefore understands the process required to interpret works old and new. (And I could listen to him play Bach or Gershwin all day long!)]

As The Good Lady Bard said: the music just flowed out of his fingers; it looked and sounded natural; it didn’t look effortless, exactly… – but neither was it anywhere near as troubling as that previous ‘effort’. In a word: remarkable; and as fluent (sounding almost improvisational, at points) as anyone could be. (Yes, he really is that good; knows his own strengths; and polishes them, along with his few weaknesses. In a year, it is obvious that he has learned so very much.)

[Anyway… after her sterling work in the Copland, and then the Gershwin, band player of the first half of tonight’s Americana has to be principal trombonist Martha-Ann Brookes. However, all the brass players were superbly enthusiastic, and charged with some sort of superhuman energy (and it really was moving to see and hear Hugh at the top of his jazzy game)!]

If you haven’t had your second espresso of the day (as I hadn’t…), and are in need of something to shake the cobwebs from the sleepy corners of what’s left of your brain (or just negate the effects of that interval drink), then may I strongly recommend the opening movement of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony – better known as From the New World…? Even the morning’s lazy, misting rain had failed to completely awaken me: but this (opening the day’s rehearsals) was like standing in front of a large, largely convivial orchestra… – not with their usual instruments, but all armed with buckets aimed directly at me – waiting until the first few Adagio and pianissimo bars had misled me into thinking I was, perhaps, after all, safe… – and then being drenched, accurately and simultaneously, with a melodic tsunami of ice-cold, shivery wonder. Gosh, it felt good!

No matter how many times I hear this symphony, it never fails to startle and arouse. It may be better known for the beautiful cor anglais solo (and its association with certain loaves of bread, and a famous steep street in Shaftesbury…) that – especially when played by Louise Braithwaite (player of this second half…) – illuminates the following Largo with glowing silken gauze (and a beauteous tune which I will probably be humming for days…); but the other three movements are all its extraordinary equal – although all are completely different in their timbre, genius and impact – the first (especially when those buckets of Allegro molto completely immerse you in its storminess and gorgeous grandiosity) – belligerent in its brewing almost-brutality. Even in its quieter moments you feel not that far removed from the threat of lashing stair-rods of musical rain… – perhaps sheltering in a small copse of trees, until the lightning strikes, and you scurry back out, Lear-like, into the “cataracts and hurricanes… sulph’rous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts”.

Then, out of the blue, like a shaft of warm sunlight, a heart-rending, floating flute solo – courtesy of the genial Nick Bhattacharjee – seems to indicate that, finally, there may be a change in the weather. But we will have to wait for that most memorable of melodies (introduced by the softest brass and woodwind possible – “a gentler quality”, says David – spot on… – and that short, thrilling crescendo…) before our skin is warmed; and our souls are filled with precious beauty. The first movement ends with a flourish of well-earned positive pomposity (for want of a better word) and grandeur. How could one man produce so many intense miracles in so few bars?

At first, the central section of this second movement is moodily uncertain… – but soon piles ravishment upon wonderment: the enlarged orchestra on perfect form (even – as always – in rehearsal). Perhaps the gale will recommence…? But it is just a few leaves floating to the ground, their life spent, under parting, fading-grey clouds. The oboes (Louise joined by principal Victoria Brawn: a great musical partnership…) suddenly ignite threatening hints of the first movement’s storm; and, momentarily, gentle warm droplets of welcome pizzicato rain bathe our hearts and minds, joining our tears (but not diluting them). A hint of menace in the bass; and Victoria’s oboe opens the skies with a last blast of diminishing thunder.

Then, Louise returns momentarily – the cor anglais such a mournful, piercing, melodious instrument in her hands – and more tears flow and my iPad screen literally blurs with drops…. I can write no more – except to say (much, much later) that (I remember) the diminishing-to-solo strings which finally clear the skies being as perfect as OOTS always are and will be; David’s astute silences like sharp intakes of soundless breath; the following trombones somehow warm and comforting in their peaceful, hopeful, response (with nary a hint of what will soon come…)]. The quietude which follows has never felt so precious. [I beg the audience not to cough. But my plea goes unheard (just). (In rehearsal, there had been a break after all that intensity… – and much needed it was, too.)]

The Scherzo which follows is momentous (yet more of that rampant genius): with Beethoven-like annunciatory descending chords (the three double-basses the most sure and gripping of foundations); chirping birds; and set as far away from the courtliness of a ‘classical’ minuet as it is possible to be, whilst still tentatively holding on to some gossamer thread extending back through time… – many tutti passages resonating, thrilling, pushing the music deep into us like a war-dance; or perhaps a plea to the gods to unleash the first movement’s terrors once again (and its opening motif: always laden with threatening intent). The use of a triangle – to me, leastways – signals humour, though; and there is wonderful levity mixed in with the darkness. [The complete run-through – before the most thorough forensic fine-tuning (always a balanced friendly, two-way, authoritative and collegiate process with David – and with humorous interventions!) – in rehearsal was startlingly, unhesitatingly good. Dynamics and entries crisper than Gary Lineker; textures as clear as a gauze curtain fluttering in the (Indian) summer sun; colours as bold (and intriguing) as the conductor’s socks.] And that coda… – the symphony’s perpetually summoning horns and trumpets blasting away any preconceptions you may have had as to how this was ever supposed to end. That last chord – a Haydnesque hit of shocking wit – instantly transforming the music into polished stone: a momentous, yet slim, column of rusting American sandstone piercing the remaining clouds….

If you still needed proof (although I cannot imagine why you would, could, or should…) that this was one of the very greatest symphonies ever composed – Dvořák’s melodies, rhythms, instrumentations, emotions, all at the very pinnacle of his astonishing career: his orchestral skills learning, growing, maturing and developing with each remarkable predecessor – then the Allegro con fuoco (blisteringly, soul-sweatingly, intensely fiery) must surely convince? From its brief Jaws-like opening (propelled immediately from the monumental ending of the Scherzo) – and another of the man’s truly, ear-piercingly, breathtakingly, greatest, chiselled melodies cleaving the air with the sharpest and shiniest of brass instruments (shockingly powerful and precise; but with so much passion on show…) – to the holistic emergence of all of the previous movement’s principal themes, this is nothing less than brutally, brightly, brilliant. It thrusts you back in your seat with its tremendous temerity. [And if Copland taught Elmer Bernstein a thing or two; then surely John Williams owes a huge debt to Dvořák?!]

Like the first movement, though, more gentle, beatific passages seem only to be there as false friends – as beautiful and terrifying as what then emerges, they bring momentary relief; and your few chances to breathe before the glorious assault recommences. This is not the chamber OOTS you thought you knew; this is an overwhelming, resonant army of talented and mighty musical soldiers shocking-and-awing, marching to magnificence; in charge, a conductor capable of awesome subtlety and seemingly of growing with frightening power to direct them. And they respond so alarmingly, impossibly well: leaving – in my case, anyway – nothing but a tear-soaked handkerchief; my heart crammed full of every single possible emotion; my mind hollowed out, though: knowing this magical chord – suspended by David in some eternal fourth dimension of unbelievable possibility – really is the climactic, calamitous full-stop (period).

[I’m sure there are a great number of works that can close a concert so electrifyingly – but, now, and still at two o’clock in the morning, I do not (will not) believe that such exist. This was that rivetingly, gobsmackingly, amorously, knee-shakingly, lung-emptyingly, huggingly, goose-pimpingly, belly-bruisingly, beautiful and, ultimately, strong… – and powerfully painful in the way only the most supreme works of art can be. (Thank you, therefore, every single member of OOTS… – yet again, you have managed to surprise me with your seemingly infinite resourcefulness, passion and supreme skill.)]

One of my few fans said that this performance was “intense”. And so it was – all four movements growing, building, flowing in the unity David so perfectly demonstrated. But it was more than that: it was serious, thoughtful, impassioned, emotional, tense, nervous, heavy, profound, vigorous, earnest, ardent, fervent, consuming, fervid and astonishingly gripping. (Which is why I now have a ticket for tomorrow’s repeat at Lichfield Cathedral – except “tomorrow” is now today; and I need to plan a route there….) One of the Truly Great Performances; and one I shall not forget. (But then neither will I forget that Copland which so engaged me that I prematurely yelled out how much it meant to me; nor the young man who made Gershwin sound sexy and involving – and, yes, rather more easy than you may have thought possible: that “easiness” giving him space for all the emotion, rhythm, melodiousness, and thrilling insight he so urgently needed to communicate. Because that’s what he does: he communicates – just with the magic of music. Thanks, Thomas.)

Outside, the first movement’s rain still fell, rolling down my glistening cheeks, joining with my tears of sadness and joy…. How I wished for Copland’s bright sun. How I wished the music had never ended. How thankful, though, was I that it had been there at all; and so had I – caught up in that ineffable something that only comes with live music played from the soul’s very core. Intense? Yes. Intense. Intense, indeed.

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