Thursday, 25 February 2016

Let joy be unconfined…!

On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet –

It seems such a long time ago (although it is only a few months) since I turned up at a concert without having first overloaded the musical compartment of my brain with scores, and having researched the pieces to be performed (and in quite some detail). However, tempted by repeat incitements on Twitter – and having been stuck at home with a miserable migraine for the past few days… – I popped onto the Malvern Theatres website; found quite a few suitable seats free; and, before I had time to draw breath, there I was, back in one of my favourite venues. [In a previous life, I was a supporter of the English Symphony Orchestra, under the wonderful William Boughton – a superb interpreter of Elgar and Brahms; and a lovely man… – as well as a long-term member of the Elgar-founded Malvern Concert Club: and the Forum Theatre was therefore a major component of my live musical existence. (The last time I was there was to see Peter Donohoe – as always… – and Martin Roscoe. I can’t actually remember what they played – each other, maybe; pianos, possibly… – but I do remember lots of laughter – as always…!)]

The core of last night’s concert was to be two guitar concertos. However, despite my mum owning almost everything recorded by John Williams and demigod Julian Bream, it was only a chance meeting with the enthusiastic and witty Stephen Dodgson (another “lovely man” – and an inspiration…) at grammar school that ‘got me into’ classical guitar music – starting, of course, with recordings of the great man’s own works. Thus my introduction to the famous Rodrigo “Concerto de Orange Juice”; along with a whole host of other pieces.

This performance was therefore refreshing in many ways. An encounter with music not heard for a while. Revisiting that “favourite venue”. Even managing to sit in my favourite location, halfway up the tiered seating! And, of course, everything that David Curtis and Orchestra of the Swan do together “refreshes the parts other [musicians] cannot reach”.

The concert began with three movements of the Suite Española, by Albeniz. Originally for solo piano (and, according to the programme notes, “known today predominantly in the classical guitar arrangements which, ironically, are not by Albeniz!”), this “first-ever string orchestra arrangement” had been commissioned by the Friends of Orchestra of the Swan [FOOOTS…?! – is this to do with Curtis’ sock fetish…?!] from Mark Chivers – who just so happens to be a “core Viola Player in OOTS”. His knowledge of string techniques – and of OOTS’ superb abilities, pellucidness, and indestructible joie de vivre – certainly showed: this was orchestration of great intelligence, employing all the players’ strengths. The final movement, in particular, was one of subtle showmanship, with some magical contrasts: and made me wish we had also experienced the three ‘absent’ ones.

What also struck me – even though I was sat much further away from the stage than I would have been in Stratford ArtsHouse – was the clarity and power of the sound. The acoustics, here, suited OOTS so much more… – I felt as if (for me) they had finally come home. I just hope Curtis’ post-interval exhortation – to “Bring a Friend Free” [as of publishing, I have yet to discover a link for this offer…] to the other concerts in this Prestigious Double Concerto Series with… – helps fill the hall, next time (with yer man Donohoe); and gives them the recognition they so clearly and dearly deserve. [Please note, by the way, that I have yet to hear them in Birmingham Town Hall. Just to say, though, that if Sir Simon really is struggling for a decent concert hall, then the Midlands has a few… – obviously, with his previous base, the Symphony Hall being (possibly globally) the crème de la crème.]

Next, that Concierto de Aranjuéz, by Rodrigo, with Craig Ogden on guitar. It is so hard to make something so familiar sound fresh; appear new – but Ogden did from the outset (aided and abetted by Curtis and company); and, what’s more, made it seem almost effortless. His opening, salutary pronouncement was both crisp and dynamically astounding. This was a statement of intent that was continuously delivered on – and his (amplified) sound was perfectly balanced with that of the orchestra’s.

The famous second movement – the Adagio – was a thing of wonderment; of transcendent beauty. Curtis, here, just (appeared to) let the music flow, with the most delicate of touches: and was rewarded with some ravishing playing – especially from the woodwind and horns. The resulting tears were still damp on my face when I exited the theatre for the interval… – even though the last notes of the final Allegro gentile left me chortling with happiness: such was the delighted precision exhibited by all involved. Just stunning – even after the earlier blow-your-socks-off orchestral entry following the mesmerizing cadenza… – and a demonstration of what can be achieved by such happy, professional, collaborative musicians. Grins all round!

Ogden is a new name to me – but, after tonight, one I will certainly keep an eye (and both ears) out for. His musicianship was that rare (although not in this company…) combination of technique, emotion and inclusiveness. He obviously thoroughly enjoyed his time with Curtis and OOTS; and his return to the stage, after the interval, for Vivaldi’s D major Guitar Concerto, was another utter delight!

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another conventional piece of classical music – but there were subtleties, and harmonic and melodic gems, by the bucketful; and the outer movements, with the solo guitar (originally written for a lute – although I cared not one jot…!) accompanied by the skilful and gorgeous continuo work of cellist Nick Stringfellow, readily kept the pre-break smile on my face.

For the second movement, marked Largo, Curtis let Ogden have the floor – generosity that was repaid manyfold. His guitar sang purely – in marked contrast to the often-percussive textures of the Rodrigo – and the strings’ accompaniment was gentle, comforting, supportive and utterly limpid. Curtis conducted this with telepathic genius: stood silently in contemplation until the closing notes. If “the music flowed” in the Rodrigo second movement, here it seeped, steeped, and then sweeped… – not only to that alluring ending; but into my veins.

The jaunty final movement – with “something of a tarantella feel” – went by too, too quickly. In fact, had I sat through this whole concert two or three times, I would still have asked for it all to be repeated. Even more joy; and a hope that the partnership with Ogden will grow from these auspicious beginnings into something even more fruitful and meaningful. His repeated calls back to the stage for applause were more than deserved. Here is a musician who communicates beautifully, and with great insight.

Although Curtis had instructed us, before the music began, to dream of wine and olives… – as Albeniz wrote –

…there are… a few things that are not completely worthless. In all of them I now note that there is less musical science, less of the grand idea, but more colour, sunlight and the flavour of olives…

…and be moved by this wonderful music to the warm Mediterranean (it was minus three Celsius, when I returned home…) – it was to delight that he and OOTS permanently transported us. This was an evening of repeated joy. And he had obviously instructed the orchestra that, on the downbeat of his baton for the final work of the evening – Mendelssohn’s fantastic ‘Italian’ Symphony (for me, everything Mendelssohn wrote was “fantastic”…) – they were to unleash every single iota of exultation that they could muster!

It was like being hit in the heart with huge heaps of instant happiness – which, despite the composer’s best attempts to cool things down: with a march, followed by an “uncharacteristic stately dance” – never stopped. Curtis’ smile was infectious: spreading quickly through the orchestra and on into the audience. As a result, I could have skipped home, easily, across the border to Warwickshire, under that moonlight… – “the serious moonlight”. On with the dance!

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