Sunday, 27 November 2016

Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill…

Once he hears to his heart’s content, sails on, a wiser man.
We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured
on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—
all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!

I know of no better (water)colourist than Claude Debussythe master of innovative impressionism: with brushstrokes that range from the deft pointillisme of Georges Seurat, to the manic ‘action painting’ of Jackson Pollock – but with the pigment applied to staves rather than canvas or board. Apart (maybe) from Benjamin Britten’s superb evocations, which so infuse Peter Grimes – or Peter Maxwell Davies: who lived much of his life surrounded by it – there is no greater depicter of the sea, in all its primordial moods.

His Nocturnes are not music that I know particularly well, however. But after hearing Sirènes – the final of the three – last night: launching a concert entitled From the Seas to the Skies, at Cheltenham Town Hall – I now want to know more! (Which is why I am sat here, reading the score.)

Directly inspired by a series of impressionist paintings of the same name – pictured throughout this review – by James Abbott McNeill Whistlersans mère – this movement could, I suppose, be seen as preparation for (more a wet than a dry run), or even a prelude to, his masterpiece, La Mer (which was cleverly programmed to follow…) – although this earlier work is much more programmatic in nature (especially with its links to Greek mythology):

‘Sirènes’ depicts the sea and its countless rhythms and presently, amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on.

Whether consciously or not, the concert consisted of works that all relied on the creation of new musical languages and forms – works that have had an overwhelming influence on later composers (especially for the cinema…) – and all of which required huge orchestral forces. Such luscious programming could easily give the impression that the evening was spent gilding a large bunch of lilies. But the presence of the ladies of the Cheltenham Bach Choir, for this opener, actually demonstrated a cunning symmetry: mirroring the stupendous piece that was to conclude the evening (and send us off into the night: as conductor David Curtis said, “lured unto the furthest reaches of space”). It should also be noted that, sometimes – but as was definitely the case here – the larger the orchestra, the more subtle and transparent the sound.

Like its more famous oceanic successor, Sirènes begins quietly, Modérément animé, over harp and lower strings. But, unlike the later piece, it is not just the wind and brass that add colour, but the wordless voices of mezzo-sopranos then sopranos. It almost felt as if we were rising to the surface from some great depth… – both of the sea, and of consciousness. I closed my eyes.

I could sense the billows breaking on the rocks; feel the lure of those fatal calls peaking in harmony with the striking surges. Debussy warns us of these ominous undercurrents with a short, voiceless passage of unrest in the strings and higher woodwind. The horns then join the two harps (both groups on momentous form) in a build to what I could only discern as desperation: the Sirens pleading more strongly (but only momentarily) as the swell grows yet more forceful. (If this is laughter, then the humour that provokes it is as dark as Erebus.)

This soon recedes – David’s control of tempi and dynamics absolutely flawless… – yet it was the lull which followed that called to me: heavenly, slow, gentle, peaceful, magnetic music seeking to embrace. But it cannot last; and the surge foams more strongly; the strings soaring higher: calling us to an irresistible paradise.

Momentarily, the horns (again) – and then a gorgeous two-bar solo from trumpeter Paul Broekman – take up the temptresses’ duties. Magic envelops us: the supernatural music overwhelming our senses; our boat gently bobbing beneath us. Are those horns beckoning or admonishing?

It no longer matters. Eerie chimes from them and the harps imply that we have passed well beyond any warning buoy; that escape is no longer possible; resistance futile. Now it is rare beauty that we breathe; that whispers to us; and the breakers pound upon the rocks as our hearts sound within us. The horns call again: and we are – somehow – back where we started: a safe distance from those heavenly-voiced seductresses… – and yet they call, call, call to us; the sea almost placid, echoing their pleading song. Under a mournful wail from the cor anglais, the previously-plangent Sirènes can only hum – bouche fermée – as their power fades away: the waves also ebbing and flowing more slowly. Hushed harmonics in the harps are there to lead us home….

This was gorgeous, ravishing music – more atmospheric than the CSO’s more typical fare, perhaps: but played with real heart and deep skill. (Captain Curtis and the CSO seem to specialize in such complex musical challenges, it has to be said: whatever form they take. And yet the orchestra never appear stretched or stressed by them in performance. This was no exception.) If a concert embarks with such resolute magnificence, though, what magnificent destination awaits…?

And let me say (that never wept before)
My tears are now prevailing orators.
– Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus (III.i.25‑26)

Typically, during a concert, I will focus on members of the orchestra, soloists, or the conductor; but Debussy’s La Mer [pdf] is a tone poem – although designated as “trois esquisses”: three sketches, however consummate… – for the memory and imagination: conjuring, in my mind, many happy hours sat alone on the Scottish coastline between Elgin and Fraserburgh, feet dangling over the harbour walls of Pennan and Portsoy, camera or sketchbook untouched upon my knee.)

So I closed my eyes again…. And yet I could still glimpse the sun breaking through during the first movement, De l’aube à midi sur la mer (it doesn’t always rain, there, y’know…) – although hints of a cloudburst were never far from the surface calm. There was a swelling of light, wind and sea; ebbing and flowing; but growing relentlessly, in parallel with the morning, as nature’s moods vacillated around us. (In comparison with Britten, at least, Debussy’s musical language emerges here as more abstract; less literal and programmatic… – and yet it requires no translation. He created something so revolutionary that is has now become the lingua franca of those craving to conjure up their own oceanic storms.)

The seafarers of the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra were superb: their seemingly infinite palette daubed with every colour, every tint, every sonic shade necessary… – from the transparent, subtle, near-inaudibility of pre-dawn (and the shimmering harps of Cathy White and Charlotte Swayne), to the final overwhelming psychedelic clash of elemental might. The glorious solo violin of leader Caroline Broekman, and the stunning passage of four-part cellos, followed by the horns – Un peu plus mouvementé… Très rythmé – leading to a quasi-climax… – additional early highlights. Not every “ensemble of committed and experienced amateur, student and professional musicians” could muster such major musicianship (nor conjure up two harpists…). This was rhythmically and technically challenging stuff.

The cor anglais and flute playing of John Wright and Catherine Billington also deserve attention: parting the clouds for the sun to break through in all its brilliance. No orchestral light has ever shone so brightly. Streaming with tears, my eyes were dazzled (as were my ears); my skin rendered gooseflesh; my blood pumping with upsurges of pure emotion.

The second movement – Jeux de vagues – is a symphonic scherzo by any other name: its key changes as playful as the music itself! Here, the woodwind and brass were on splendid, delicate form – especially the horns (Laura Morris, Kelly Haines, Charlotte Montgomery, Christopher Sturdy and Sophie Ellis: surely the players of the night – and we haven’t even made it to the interval…). So lustrous and harmonious in the first movement, here their mellifluous tones were almost tangible, graspable: warming, tuneful, but occasionally impish – a trait soon developed by the whole orchestra; and then taken close to extremes. This was not simply the Play of the waves, but of the spirits which cause them to twinkle and sparkle; who cause their crests to whiten and shudder onto golden sands. [Having just seen The Tempest, I could only think of Prospero – in an uncommon jolly mood – conducting his “Spirits, which by mine art I have from their confines call’d to enact My present fancies”. All David lacked was a cloak, and a head and chin full of wise, white, spiky hair! (All Prospero lacks is a natty pair of socks.)]

As with the first movement, though, seriousness, darkness, is never far away – those continual changes of mood; of light; of weather… – clouds passing in front of the afternoon sun momentarily chilling the atmosphere; but soon warmed, here, by lyrical string playing of the highest order. But then the wind gathers; the swell rises; the trumpets inject splashes of colour – cheeky, yet foreboding.

A sequence of full orchestral punches (at figure 32, and following) are supplanted by a quieter, more animé interplay of strings and wind (percussion hovering, like Ariel, always ready to stir up mischief). And then we find ourselves swept up in the middle of an almost celebratory waltz: the waves dancing, now; the cellos, again, singing with all their hearts; the violins and violas (divided into seven parts) – supported by the rest of the orchestra – singing higher and more emphatically, repeating the same rhythm – dance-like, still; but not in a way anyone other than Ravel would recognize. Horns and trumpets burst through… – and, suddenly, disquiet reigns: the lower strings chuntering, fading away; the harps’ glorious glissandos perhaps two last wavelets, gently pluming ashore.

But all is not done. Those horns again! And an ethereal pause from more divided strings; the harps gentler, now. The waves are weary: and drift serenely, rockingly, to sleep. (It almost feels as if we are once more submerged beneath them: lulled ourselves to dream.)

If by your art, my dearest father, you have
Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.
The sky it seems would pour down stinking pitch,
But that the sea, mounting to th’ welkin’s cheek,
Dashes the fire out.
– Shakespeare: The Tempest (I.i.1‑5)

It would have been natural for Debussy to assign particular (groups of) instruments to each of the two antagonists of the Dialogue du vent et de la mer – perhaps, literally, woodwind and brass for “le vent”; and strings and harps for “la mer”. But he was such a subtle artist – despite the leviathan instrumental requirements of this last movement: including almost a bandstand’s-worth of brass and percussion (all of them on the form of their lives) – that he could (and would) never fall into such a trap. And here he is at his Animé et tumultueux, Turneresque best: with a stunning pinnacle of the orchestrator’s art. I could feel the current ebbing and flowing – tide falling but especially rising – in the opening string motifs – almost expecting the great white shark from Jaws to appear! Something is astir: a storm brewing in the percussion, wind and brass.

These are possibly Debussy’s greatest brush-strokes: using mutes and string techniques to colour and shape tonality and dynamics. This is more a dispute than an equable “dialogue”, however – a lover’s tiff, perhaps? – and, yes, the waves are whipped up by the wind; and yet it feels it feels like neither elemental force has the upper hand. (Maybe they are working in tandem, after all: plotting to vanquish anything concrete that obstructs them?)

Eerie fanfares and listless murmurings; menacing horn-calls and thuds from the bass drum (knocking on our seaward-facing windows); all presaging the music that would end the evening – but they are also the sound of a crashing, crushing roller of orchestral might as strong as any storm: alerting us; warning of the unrest to come. This builds slowly, accumulating momentum, then ferocity – the bassoons scowling and scaring, joined by the horns, cellos and basses (“Grimes is at his exercise”) – amplifying, intensifying….

A momentous crash: a gargantuan breaker sweeps over the harbour walls, shaking the shutters we have now closed in fear. All we can do is huddle behind centuries-old stone walls, waiting for the battle – if it ever will – to cease.

Then, just as unexpectedly, calmness. The horns now seek to reassure us, but the unease rumbles on: even as flecks of sunlight spot the restless waves with silver. The harps return; flute and oboe (Tessa Pemberton) soaring – as ghostly albatrosses all aglide – over whispering strings. But, again, something stirs….

The entry of all other members of the orchestra, forte – perfectly coordinated by David – seems to signify that the foes have finally reached agreement. Like the violins and violas, the wind and the sea are in unison. But this, too, soon fades: and scurrying trumpets alert us to another change of mood. The main theme – a rise and fall in the flute and oboe again – brings hope: but we have heard it dashed and scattered to the four corners of the earth before. The first violins repeat it, though, with growing confidence. Then pause – gathering huge lungfuls of air (David in no need of a “magic garment” for such control). Is the storm breaking? There is certainly peace – albeit of a kind which disconcerts. The atmosphere remains restless: dark clouds on the horizon, growing, looming, threatening, scudding towards us with all their might. And yet the massed brass are steady (as she goes): a firm foundation of dry land; a comfort, even… – but an empty one.

Again, the white horses gallop toward us; huge marbles of rain pelting land and sea. A cornet cries out – a solitary voice, lost in the gale; or is this the sound of self-belief? And then we see the tsunami – a wall of air, water and reverberation – towering over us: fundamental forces overwhelming all. There is no greater power than this; no creator more powerful. We stand in awe, transfixed: blown away by the preternatural exhalation.

The rest is silence. And I open my eyes: a tidal wave of tears surging down my wind-blasted cheeks… – more in need of fresh air than I have been for a very long time.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
     — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
     Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
     Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
     And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
     Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
     The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
– Wilfred Owen: Anthem for Doomed Youth

When you think of war-inspired music, perhaps Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony comes to mind; or Nielsen’s fourth and fifth; and probably Britten’s War Requiem – but I can think of no more harrowing work than Holst’s The Planets. However joyous it might sometimes seem: to me, every note is suffused with wasted blood – Holst once telling the conductor Adrian Boult “that he wanted the stupidity of war to stand out” in performance. Mars, the Bringer of War is of course an obvious reference – goodness knows what the original audience made of this aggressive soul-curdling music in September 1918… – and it still shocks today. But the other movements all contain such references: whether to military pastiche, or contemplative sadness, weariness, and regret. Wilfred Owen, had he been sat next to me at last night’s concert, would have wept, as I did, with instant recognition.

This is truly great music; the very best of the best – and, as David said to me after the concert, it is truly unique. (I could easily make a case for it being one of the greatest pieces of classical music ever written – it is so utterly inspired in both its construction and instrumentation: ranging from the wonderful melody at the heart of Jupiter to the desolation of Saturn. But this is probably not the place or time….)

It is therefore not really about those shiny things we see in the night sky. As I wrote earlier in the week: “the constituent pieces have as much astrological inspiration as astronomical… mirroring Shakespeare’s ‘seven ages of man’”. They are principally about the human spirit: in all its various forms and stages – but especially when in, or after, conflict.

It seems strange, in many ways, that such dark music should become so popular – something the composer himself truly hated. But such imposing music will out: even if people see and hear only the surface gloss. It helps, of course, that – one hundred years after its composition; and its development of a new linguistic mode of musical expression… – it has become so readily accessible. But I wonder what others take away from its performance? [If they were in Cheltenham, last night, my guess is bruises: both physical and mental; awe, from the bombardment of timpani (Roger Clift and Sam Gerard) and percussion (Ros Fletcher, Ian Evans, and Elizabeth Alford); astonishment (especially the celeste playing of John Stillman) and the ‘solo’ of the three, lyrical double-basses (Simon Cox, Rob Tallis and Jenny Taylor); and a broken heart (especially from the singing cello of Stephen Pett).]

I have been fortunate to hear some truly amazing performances this year: but this was “the very best of the best” – every single musician working their socks off, giving it their all… until those ethereal, pure voices faded beyond hearing. The silence was unbearable. But so was the thought of applause.

I had wept from start to finish. I could not have done otherwise: my mind in tatters; my heart riven; my soul shattered to smithereens. Good music will do this, of course. But only if played this well. (I was tempted to list every single player and singer – they all deserve my thanks; and a bloody big hug.) Go home to your beds with pride, you great musicians of Cheltenham! Wake up with a smile; and the confidence that comes from a job better done than you would have dreamt possible…. The planets truly had aligned.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

A tale of two sittings…

Mark Quartley (Ariel); Simon Russell Beale (Prospero) – photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC

It was the best of sight-lines, it was the worst of sight-lines, it was the stage of wisdom, it was the stage of foolishness, it was the epoch of humanity, it was the epoch of technology, it was the viewpoint of Light, it was the viewpoint of Darkness, it was the visibility of presumption, it was the invisibility of forethought…

Introduction: The emperor’s new seat…
Before I (sort of) pronounce judgment on my second visit to The Tempest – and hand down my wonted hundred sentences (or so) – I want to make one thing clear: Any drama production which values only a minority of the audience is – whatever its qualities for that minority – a failure. [That this failure has been propagated by the RSC’s Artistic Director and one of its most experienced designers just makes things so very much worse. If there are two people on this planet who should understand the audience dynamics and perspectives of this theatre, then, surely it is these? That they have failed to do so is inexplicable. It is also unforgivable. (And, yes, I understand that different price-points buy you different experiences – but not ones with such stark differences, surely…?)]

I also need to explain why I was there…. As a result of my previous review, I had been invited “as a guest of the RSC”. I had also been given a “superseat”, in the Stalls. But, like the worst sort of champagne (or, in my case, Aberlour 100 Proof) socialist, glued to that superseat, I felt genuinely guilty about my new vantage point: knowing that others (whose gaze would not meet mine) were not so fortunate.

It is, they agree, a huge undertaking…. Rehearsed in three weeks, teched in three days, the panto machine has a lot of cogs: scenes, routines, choreography plus all the bells and whistles, magic and dry ice. “You’re using all the tricks you can,” says McKenna. McDougall nods: “It’s another level of difficult than I’ve experienced before. So many elements have to come together.”
     Not least the audience. “They’re the last member of your cast,” McKenna stresses. “If you ignore them for a second, they back off for good.”

That such a piece of experimental theatre has been carried out – an expensive gamble, in reality… – at the punter’s expense (both in monetary and anticlimactic terms) is simply not ethical. The whole run at Stratford-upon-Avon is virtually sold-out – with now only formally-labelled (rather than thoughtlessly accidental) “Restricted View” seats available for many shows – not because of the reviews (although these have mostly been positive: mainly, I feel, due to the critics’ seating positions and the relative wow-factor novelty); but because of the hype that has been generated over the last year or so. Yes, I am a Patron – and a lifelong visitor and fan – but, for many reasons (many of which I will and can not go into here), I believe the RSC should feel corporately ashamed.

In summary: If my earlier review captured what it was to experience the black-and-white, monaural radio version of the play, then what follows is the Technicolor, high-definition, surround sound, 3D cinema version (over 90% of which, visually – astoundingly… – was new to me). I count myself fortunate to have seen it – see Postscript – but that does not mean that this review is not tinged with sadness (as well as the guilt outlined above).

Not really a review: Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant…
Firstly – and this is a major illustration of just how much difference the position of my seat made – the play, which had dragged a week ago, flew by. Secondly, half-immersed (not fully: because of my previous experience; and despite my trying to see the production afresh, having left my first impressions – mostly – at home…), with the cast and their actions now given context, this was also a much more satisfactory viewing. The large number of things which had left me puzzled before now made sense. Or, as Alex says in A Clockwork Orange, “It’s funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.” [Whether you take this as a warning, or as praise, when experiencing such a brave new world of such experimental hyperreality, probably depends on both your physical and mental points of view. (It may be – after the shock of the Brexit and Trump votes – that we require such an escape. But not into a world like this: controlled by the whims of one man.)]

What I took away, this time, though – even granted the now perfect vantage point – was not how powerful, how more meaningful – how improved (although far from perfect) – the technical effects were; but how variable Simon Russell Beale’s performance is – or perhaps how different it appears with and without the accompaniment of visible wizardry. His reviews have been mixed: and, although some of the grounds for this are manifestly subjective, it did feel – after trying to make allowances for my slightly deeper immersion (at least I got my toes wet, etc.) – that the man was a lot more involved in proceedings, last night. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the greatest scenes were those where he was alone on stage; and that he outshone everyone else by quite some margin.

To be honest (and to keep the word-count and my bedtime manageable), my friend Kirk’s thoughtful review says much of what I wanted to, and tried to: especially with regards to direction and acting (although see below). However, we don’t agree on everything – so feel free to compare and contrast! (He is, however, more magnanimous than I am – not letting his first experience so colour his second, as I have done.)

I still found the humour too broadly played: and wondered why there was a need for such exaggerated stereotyping. At my first viewing, I struggled to keep up with Simon Trinder’s Trinculo: no matter what programme my hearing aids were set to – but this time, most of the dialogue was considerably clearer (which, of course, also helped me feel more involved). However, Ariel’s first lines from the very back of the stage – had I not known the play so well – would have remained a mystery. [It is worth noting that my hearing aids were again set to sample both direct sound and the RST’s normally infallible induction loop: so, as the latter is piped directly from the sound booth, I was left a little perplexed as to why this should be. (Only a little, though. My experience – although I am beginning to sound like a broken record on this topic – is that both music and audio-effects frequently render such speech into mime.)]

I had struggled with the sound before, though: and an online discussion with others who had also seen the production led me to considering the projectors as culprits. However, in the Stalls, there was an overlayed buzz of electrical interference playing hornet-style havoc with my hearing aids, every time there was a gap in the dialogue, no matter whether these twenty‑seven leviathans were on or off. At first, I had believed this to be a sound-effect: distant waves crashing against the island’s shore, perhaps. It was only when I reverted to live sound just before Prospero’s final speech that I confirmed that this audible hum was just a darned nuisance caused by all the surrounding gizmology emitting some form of electrical interference.

Talking of which… – I described them as “various randomly-appearing diaphonous screens” in my original review: but I now know that the technical team at the RSC has designated this disquieting device “the vortex” – although, bizarrely, I prefer Quentin Letts’ characterization, in the Daily Mail, of them as “chimneys of silk lowered from on high”. This captures, more accurately, I feel, the steaming, menacing insubstantiality of dark satanic melanism that constantly hovers over us.

I wouldn’t say the effects wowed me – sometimes I could not make out what I was actually seeing; other times, having two non-synchronized Ariels on stage prompted low-level motion sickness – but I finally did see their point. And, had I not been coloured by their previous invisibility, would surely have been utterly drawn in by them.

And, yes, Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design is obviously inventive; and again captivating. But it doesn’t need special-effects to make it so; and it’s about time he stopped going too far behind the old proscenium arch (for visibility’s and the audience’s sake – although this often happens in his partnerships with Doran: e.g. Henry V…). It will be interesting to see how it is adapted for the run at the Barbican, that’s for sure.

But what about the actors? Literally fish out of water, the first time around; as I said above, the new contexts – the effects; the obvious placement within the theatrical space/environment; newly-visible physical relationships… – brought polish to their performances: particularly Mark Quartley’s strangely hen-like (in both looks and moves) Ariel.

Now that I have had a chance to observe him more thoroughly, he appears to have arrived at the RSC after fronting a Muse concert – although his stage persona is paradoxically a lot less eccentric, a lot more subdued (and, I presume, intentionally). It’s as if his subservience to Prospero has additionally, and completely, incarcerated any jot of character or development. But he does begin to mature a little as the eternal elasticity of the deadline for his freedom finally becomes finite and snaps into place: and it is, therefore, ultimately, why his relationship with Prospero seems more cogent than Miranda’s.

This partnership culminates (as, it seems to me, does the whole play) in Ariel asking his stern father-figure of a captor – like some small child exploring both the definition of the word and the depth of promise it contains… –

Before you can say “come” and “go,”
And breathe twice, and cry “so, so,”
Each one, tripping on his toe,
Will be here with mop and mow.
Do you love me, master? No?

…a perfect, urgent, shocking restatement of Miranda’s abrupt interrogation of Ferdinand one act earlier: “Do you love me?” But this later challenge carries a hundred more times emotional heft. (And – much to my surprise – caused a sudden shoulder-shaking stream of tears to run down my face. Simon Russell Beale’s response, it has to be said, also affected me.)

Jenny Rainsford’s Miranda – strangely looking a lot older than in Love for Love, and certainly well out of her teenage years… – was too simply characterized: her supposed emotions – perhaps representing her naïveté – jagged, rather than subtle; jumping up steps, rather than running along a spectrum. [I wondered if there was a connection I had missed, the first time around – and which drove this spasmodic behaviour – that is, Miranda’s realization of a world beyond “this island we arriv’d”: her isolation perhaps deriving from Plato’s allegory of the cave. (But perhaps this was Shakespeare’s own implication; not Doran’s exaggerated inference?)]

Daniel Easton (Love for Love again), as Ferdinand, was a little too gauche for my liking – but effective, nonetheless. Tom Turner (yet another Love for Love refugee), as Sebastian, was also not allowed to shine, as he did in the earlier production. Joseph Mydell, though, as Gonzalo – a Polonius with a big heart – was terrific; and his concerns felt truly genuine. (I know this sounds cruel: but very few of the speaking cast made much of an impact in the way that usually provokes me to run through the whole list, devoting a whole paragraph to each….)

Joe Dixon’s Caliban, however, continually broke my heart: although (as I said in my first review) his portrayal worried me. I have always believed that Caliban is (for want of a better word) a savage creation – meaning both untamed and uncivilized (as natural as the island he was born of/on) as well as ferocious and furious – rather than the “creature who’s a bit slow on the uptake” portrayed here (however sympathetic I felt). In some ways, despite his obvious love of beautiful things (“Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not”), he is, as a monster (perhaps even the alter ego of his conqueror), as brutish and as violent as Prospero’s enslaving of him. Although we should therefore feel pity for this tragic figure, I also believe we should be more than a little “afeard” of him.

Here, the balance is overweighted to the former (his ‘otherness’ inciting mockery and advantage-taking – he is not even tragicomic; just comic…): yet another example of the removal of subtlety, of shade, of doubt. (For all the colour we are frequently bathed in: the depictions of persona and plot seem awfully black-and-white.)

One thing – just a tiny thing, really – seems a bit odd, given the liberties taken with the setting and approach. That is, having the actors use the Elizabethan pronunciation “Millen” instead of the more recognizable “Milan”. Authenticity doesn’t seem to be an important consideration here, so why say Millen when you mean Milan?”

If I gave stars – which I don’t – like commercial reviewers; and, if I hadn’t initially ‘seen’ the production from the wrong seat – unlike commercial reviewers – then this second viewing might have merited a solid three. But, lying “Full fathom five”, drowned in the disappointment of my first experience – yet unable to “suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange” – I am finding it difficult to reach any new judgments or conclusions. So I will simply let it be; and let you form your own….

Postscript: The jade he doth protest too much, methinks…
Normally (whatever that means), I would not have accepted what could easily have been seen, by some, as a bribe – i.e. my “superseat”, as “a guest of the RSC”; rather than a simple refund – and I did think long and hard about my decision.

In the end – satisfied that the whole (for want of another better word) ‘compensation’ process was transparent, and would be resolved with a complete absence of precondition (because both sides of the equation wanted and needed it to be) – I concluded that my acceptance was in no way a compromise (one of my least favourite critters). On top of which, I made it very clear to my contacts at the RSC – who made absolutely zero effort to persuade me otherwise – that my original review would stand; and my opinions and concerns expressed there not changed one iota – unless for good, theatrical, experiential reasons. (Regular readers of this blog will have expected nothing less of me, I presume. Although I do hope that you will not think my continued negativity – albeit now salved with the occasional application of approbation – anything other than sincere; and provoked by my usual frankness, rather than a misguided exigence of contrived criticism.)

Needless to say – enthusiastic theatre-goer that I am – I also did not want to miss out on any opportunity of witnessing – and communicating (reviewing, and thus recording) – what has been billed (accurately or not) as “an unforgettable theatrical experience”: especially one that – good or bad – may well go on to influence other productions that I see at the RSC and elsewhere. (This admittedly has a tinge of self-interest. But I certainly didn’t want the play to be “unforgettable” for all the wrong reasons; and without the benefit of any doubt.)

Lastly: I had failed to make it to a preview, the week before (one of many tickets booked many, many months ago, that have recently ended up unused, due to a decline in my health) – a performance where I would have had a great vantage point, just off-centre, in the Circle (pretty much directly above where I sat last night). So, offered that unexpected privilege (a concession I trust I have ‘earned’ through honesty and hard graft) of salvaging what I thought was irretrievable – of viewing this production as GD intended – I was going to grab that seat with both buttocks! (And with a clear conscience – but a fervent heart.)

Gratitude and appreciation must therefore be heaped on the Box Office staff who made this all possible; who dealt with the fallout from my original review; and who were friendly, genuine and open in their communication with me. They not only handled my complaints with patience, great thoughtfulness and sensitivity – especially with regards to my needs as a disabled audience member – but have clearly taken my concerns on board; and managed them to my satisfaction.

In a way, I think I owed it to them – as much as the RSC did to me – to see the production again, and give it a second chance: as a way of demonstrating my thanks and reciprocal trust: knowing that the additional negative remarks I have made will be comprehended as intended – and then, where/if practicable, dealt with.

If we do not tell such caring customer-facing staff when things go wrong for us, how will they know to (try and) sort them? (Any sympathy, or even empathy, they may have – however sincere – is obviously constrained by the requirements of corporate loyalty.) And if enough of us make them aware, then gradually – hopefully – perhaps the organization itself will begin to develop the same ethos as those helpful, thoughtful, attentive individuals: improving the experience for everyone. I have my doubts. But I also always try to give the benefit of them….

Monday, 21 November 2016

Music of the Spheres: an Earth-dweller’s guide to The Planets

On Saturday, 26 November 2016, Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra – joined by the ladies of the Cheltenham Bach Choir – will perform a quite magical programme entitled From the Seas to the Skies at Cheltenham Town Hall. The final work of the evening has become one of the most famous and popular compositions of the last century – but, although it is so familiar, there is always someone (I hope) for whom it is not; and – as I discovered, doing a little preliminary research to inform my review (as is my wont) – there is always something new to be learned about it.

Approaching the work in this way, with an open mind, I trust the following brief preamble will rub off on those who consider themselves ‘afraid’ of, or unsuited to, such ‘classical’ music (especially the more ‘modern’ sort) – who may judge it is not to their taste… – and convince them that this entrancing composition can be their gateway to a new universe of sound. I truly believe that, in giving it a chance, they will not be disappointed!

A new musical language…
Although the score still sounds incredibly thrilling, fresh, and modern, Cheltenham-born Gustav Holst’s “Suite for Large Orchestra”, The Planets, was completed one hundred years ago, at the height – or, in reality, the darkest depths – of World War I.

In some ways – especially as the constituent pieces have as much astrological inspiration as astronomical – they can be heard as individual orchestral tone poems (or, as Holst himself described them, “a series of mood pictures”) mirroring Shakespeare’s ‘seven ages of man’. This is why the movements are not ordered musically as the celestial bodies are physically – and why they have titles encapsulating philosophical theories about how the planets govern our lives: for example, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity – which, incidentally, has at its core a tune that will be rousingly familiar to all!

As well as the enduring relevance of such spiritual concepts, I think these pieces continue to influence – and have meaning for – us in three principal ways. Firstly (remembering that Pluto was only discovered in 1930, four years before Holst’s death), as we develop ever more sophisticated technologies – enabling us to learn ever more about our solar system and beyond, and to locate worlds that may harbour other sentient beings – we grow increasingly fascinated with that expanding universe. Additionally, as children, mesmerized by the night sky (as our ancestors were), we dream of exploring the space around us – hence the enduring attraction of film series such as Star Trek and Star Wars. Then, as adults – or just bigger kids! – we seek to understand our relevance, our importance, to the cosmos itself; to discover our place within it (just as Holst did). And finally – as ‘universal’ music in more ways than one – The Planets [pdf] provides us with a key to understanding the ideas at the heart of such science-fiction: meaning that it is no coincidence that the entry of Darth Vader to the strains of John Williams’ The Imperial March is not a million light-years away from the appearance of Mars, the Bringer of War…!

This is not to accuse Williams of any form of ‘borrowing’: merely to demonstrate Holst’s uncanny genius in producing seven uniformly impressive and inspirational pieces of music that not only fit together perfectly; but, individually, in all their contrasts of speed, volume and emotion, clearly convey their meaning – from the terrors of mechanized bloodshed to the mysteries of silence – evoking similar responses, similar passions, in all of those who listen: thereby creating a new musical language fit for our technological age, whether at war or at peace.

I would suggest, therefore, that if you already admire such soundtracks – and I would argue that Williams has created some of the very greatest – then you will adore Holst’s! And you won’t even need George Lucas or Steven Spielberg to provide the visuals – this is music that explodes with its very own special effects. Close your eyes, and lose yourself in your own private planetarium; or picture yourself as Han Solo making the Kessel Run!

Like Williams, Holst understood that to create such impact, he required as large an orchestra as he could muster: with not only enough brass to pin you back in your seat, but percussion that you will feel pounding through the soles of the thickest boots! He also appreciated that space is mostly empty – and, although other composers before him had tried, this is the first ‘classical’ work that truly fades out, rather than ends: an offstage ladies choir drifting slowly to the most beauteous, heart-stopping silence.

Postscript: a good omen…?
On Friday, 25 November 2016, low in the eastern pre-dawn sky, the thin, waning crescent moon will come extremely close to “the king of all planets”, Jupiter. Although this may not bring “jollity”, as such, it should still be spectacular to witness (should our autumnal weather behave itself). Hopefully, it will also prove to be a blessing – a harbinger of success – for the following day’s performance!

From Cheltenham…, the pair will be visible in the dawn sky, [the moon] rising at 03:10 (GMT) – 4 hours and 34 minutes before the Sun – and reaching an altitude of 29° above the south-eastern horizon before fading from view as dawn breaks at around 07:17…. The pair will be too widely separated to fit within the field of view of a telescope, but will be visible to the naked eye or through a pair of binoculars.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Play’d some tricks of desperation…

Mark Quartley (Ariel); Simon Russell Beale (Prospero) – photo by Topher McGrillis © RSC

If thou more murmur’st, I will rend an oak
And peg thee in his knotty entrails till
Thou hast howl’d away twelve winters.

How many readers of this blog, I wonder, remember the landmark computer game Myst – or even played it (if “play” is the right verb for something so fascinating and disconcerting…)? “Initially released on the Macintosh platform on September 24, 1993”, and inspired by Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island (perhaps itself borrowing a little from Shakespeare), Myst “was the best-selling PC game until The Sims exceeded its sales in 2002.” Despite its (now) almost-antediluvian technology, the story was extraordinarily immersive, and the (few) characters extremely believable. It therefore had a strong – but strange – influence on the gaming industry (as well as those who explored its eponymous island); and now – when all branches of arts and technology appear to be cross-fertilizing at a rate of knots – seems to be having a similar (if indirect) effect on dramaturgy.

I only ask, because, last night, I found myself overlooking an island not dissimilar, in theory: with a corresponding lack of death; and a comparable library filled with powerful books. However, despite the supposedly cutting-edge technology used to bring it to life, this isle “full of noises” failed to convince, to draw me in: firstly, because that technology seeks to wow, rather than intrigue; and because – rather than stay in the background, to aid plot and character development – when it is used, it overwhelms. We are then almost told how we must think – “Be gobsmacked!” – whereas Myst succeeded primarily because it forced you to think for yourself: there was no single route through its mystery; no single solution.

Despite the pizzazz, Prospero’s island home feels one-dimensional – the wizardry of the RSC’s latest production of The Tempest (about as “cutting edge” as a rusty butter-knife) shrouds, distracts and obfuscates, rather than enables, excites and enlightens: there is a lack of transparency, of subtlety, of doubt, of shade. (Does director Greg Doran honestly believe modern audiences are incapable of suspending disbelief – and that he must attempt to do it for them?) You open the pages of the colouring book to find them already completed: rough, broken pencil-strokes escaping willy-nilly beyond the printed lines.

Well, I must presume you do (mainly referencing the above photo: which came as something of a shock…): as – secondly (and principally) – from where I sat, all I could discern were the bright blinking Cyclops eyes of an army of projectors firing simultaneously into life from all quarters of the theatre, announcing that some privileged(?) members of the audience were about to have some blurry images projected onto various randomly-appearing diaphonous screens the rest of us could not see more than a small fraction of; or, therefore, understand. That the machines responsible for the supposed ‘magic’ were so prominent; that I could see clearly into the wings; that it was all so clunky and badly thought-out from an audience perspective… provoked only one sincere emotion in me: anger (as you can no doubt tell from this attempt at a review). This is not the holodeck I was looking for – and had been promised.

My seat was not marked (on the revised seating plan [pdf] as one with a “Restricted View”. In fact, it was price-band B (normally around £40 – and priced at £55 for the equivalent captioned performance…): on the second row of the circle, stage left. Neither is this the first time such a problem has occurred. Members of my family were sat in similar seats, in the stalls, for Othello, but could not, from there, see much of the action. After my partner kicked up a telephonic fuss (a route unavailable to me, with my duff hearing), we received a refund; and had the seats marked as ‘unsuitable’ on my customer account. Why they were not marked as such for everyone, I do not know.

Unfortunately, my captioned seat, later in the run, is in roughly the same place… – which means that I will be able to see the text clearly (until the dreaded “various randomly-appearing diaphonous screens” are lowered… – which then poses an interesting discriminatory conundrum…) – but not the action.

As I wrote to a friend (edited for sense and language), after discovering that there are others in the same boat (ahem):

This is what happens, of course, when you have tech rehearsals directed from the best seats…. Any director with an ounce of common-sense – rather than an apparent god complex – would wander around every level of the theatre, confirming sightlines, whilst the set is built (like a good conductor moves around a venue – even one he knows well – checking acoustics); and then use the previews to adjust prices (and, if necessary, issue refunds or credits). Such honesty and openness – as well as an admission that the set designer, technicians and director ‘got it wrong’, and didn’t consider the needs of the punters (just their cash) – is anathema to much of the current management, though. (I bet you the press tickets were all dead centre…!)
     The RSC’s attention to its customers seems increasingly risible and tokenistic (part of, I believe, the miasma of entitlement that infects those in power in Stratford…) – it only hears and sees (and publicizes) what it wants and needs to. After all, like the Birthplace Trust, it ‘owns’ Will – and has the added benefit of royal patronage. (I may be the only socialist in the village: but come the revolution, etc..)

So, for nearly three – extremely long and tedious – hours, I sat there repeatedly asking “What special effects?” As far as I could see and tell, they either weren’t very special, or weren’t very effective. And I actually wondered, towards the end, if there had been a mammoth technical malfunction that I was unaware of: and the cast had, as a result, fallen back on some Luddite Plan B. What is the point of hyping up the technology when it is used so randomly, and then only confuses? All the hype about Ariel’s performance-captured avatar: when it appeared – as far as I could tell – only two or three times, for a matter of seconds? Lucy Ellinson’s Puck was infinitely more spellbinding. And all she required was her own personal genius, and a hat.

And we’ve had the coloured glass floor before: but, of course, that too is not visible to many (meaning nearly everyone in the Stalls). So – unless your ticket is centred in the Circle (and you’d paid up to £70 for a “Premium Seat”) – you’re screwed. The poor lady next to me kept straining forward to see what we were missing. But, of course, it was as futile as peering over the top of the television set, trying to see what Paul Daniels had in his top hat. (Now, that was magic!)

As I texted my partner at the interval: “I can’t remember ever being bored in the theatre before.” And then, I nearly went home. But I remembered that the technical coup de grâce was supposed to be the wedding masque – the initial inspiration for this presumptuous peacock project. So I gave it the benefit of the doubt; got out of my car again; and returned to my seat. (Thank goodness us cripples only have to pay £16 for the privilege.) Honestly, apart from a few glowing feathers and trims – ultraviolet light, I guess – and some clunkily-animated, faux-Hockney scribblings (which I could just about see the last few inches of – if I leaned forward: further worsening what little view those behind me had…) – it didn’t seem any different to what went before or after it. (Oh, apart from some faux-Mozart Queen of the Night warblings – which made a change from the faux‑Enya dreariness, I suppose: although that had, at least, captured my mood perfectly.)

The opening storm scene should have been warning enough. Having tried every hearing-aid setting I could, and settling on the mixed-live-and-loop programme as the best of a bad bunch, I couldn’t hear a word over the crashing and banging: the sound of the effects perfectly overwriting the frequencies of speech. However, I was truly moved in the scene which followed. Just Prospero (Simon Russell Beale) and Miranda (Jenny Rainsford) on stage. No fiddly stuff. No gizmos. Just two human-beings breaking our hearts. Great, I thought, at least the scenes without technology will be worth my while.

But the wrecked nobles were superglued to the spot (think 1960s opera); and the buffoonery between Trinculo (Simon Trinder) and Stephano (the usually-outstanding Tony Jayawardena) were over-played. And, here we go again, mocking the afflicted, rendering Caliban – the only role I had any empathy (or even sympathy) with – not an object of pity or scorn, or even of hatred (for his past treatment of Miranda), but as a creature who’s a bit slow on the uptake, and is there – as far as I could see… – to be mocked for his disabilities. (Post-truth marketing mixed with post-Brexit attitudes towards ‘otherness’…? Lovely – at least for the entitled Tory voters of South Warwickshire. But not for me. Bloody hell, it felt uncomfortable.)

By the way, before anyone accuses me of being an old fuddy-duddy: firstly, I used to write for the technology pages of the Guardian – he said, establishing his credentials – and, secondly, I don’t object to technology in the theatre one bit. After all, it has made lighting easier, and help it grow into a major component of story-telling; as well as given those of us who require such things captions and hearing loops – although these are still somewhat clunky, from a user perspective. I just believe that utilizing gizmos for their own sake – to the extent that the plot serves them, rather than vice versa – is a trap-ridden cul-de-sac: one where people come to wonder, but not to engage; to gawp, but not to think; to be told, not to enquire. if this is the future of theatre – which I strongly doubt: it simply feels like (especially Shakespearean) theatre experimenting (at the audience’s cost); trying to attract more than its traditional core demographic; whilst wondering how to survive in a world of dying arts education, increasingly-stretched Arts Council grants… – then count me out. (If it is an experiment, how I pray that those who are responsible are – or soon become – aware that it has failed.)

Of course I can see the parallels between Prospero’s magic and Doran’s use of computers – as well as the play’s obvious meta‑references – but I think his justification for the use of so much top-heavy, sporadic, theatrical illusion is dubious, to say the least. Not all of the play is that (anticlimactic) masque. Nor can I find – apart from Doran wanting to see “what would happen if the very latest technology could be applied to Shakespeare’s play today” – a valid artistic reason for doing this. Either the plot has been lost (which it nearly is, burdened as it is with so much active and passive distraction); or this is simply boys (and girls) playing with the newest toys. It almost feels as if the text is secondary to – or even an excuse for – the abilities and facilities that Intel and Imaginarium Studios could provide. (The word used throughout the programme was “theatrical”: but this was mostly of the “Exaggerated and excessively dramatic” variety, rather than simply “Relating to acting, actors, or the theatre”.)

Perhaps Sycorax is still in charge, after all – and what we see is a “Hag-seed” even more twisted than “poor monster” Caliban…? Or Ariel hasn’t been quite as obedient as Prospero believes…!

To discuss the acting in any detail seems pointless. It felt as if the actors were there as props; and to fill the longueurs between ‘effects’. Simon Russell Beale frequently looked as bored as I was; and felt trapped – in more ways than the obvious… – unable to give his masterful all and zoom off into the stratospheric levels of his talent – because of the wizardry (of other people’s making) walling him in. Perhaps he is recognizant of the fact that he has been brought in because of his rightly-earned fame; and perhaps also to lure those for whom the technology is not that great an attraction.

I always believed that The Tempest had mystery at its heart. The only mystery I experienced last night, though, was why there was so much cheering at the end (although I noticed the actors, about to return for a repeat ovation, stopping in their tracks, as the applause suddenly faded; and then promptly reversing…). Truly, our revels now are ended.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Our fleeting Bach is under sail…

This review (of the same programme performed on successive days) is dedicated to leading light – and all-round nice guy – Hugh ‘Miles’ Davies (above): trumpeter supreme; and, it turns, out, Orchestra of the Swan’s answer to Tim Vine. He may have played less than a hundred notes during each of the two concerts: but, suffering, as he is, from chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), every single one of those notes was worth its weight in gold; and was as hard-earned, and as shimmeringly transcendent, as moondust.

So, if you would like to make a donation to the Fountain Centre – an independent charity located in the St Luke’s cancer unit at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford – which is supporting Hugh (and many others): please click here. Thank you.

A thickset man, with penetrating eyes, wearing a powdered wig, and with a viola da gamba and bow under his arm, walks into the local Brandenburgher joint, and stares at the gaudily-lit menu: “I’ll have ein Big Bach, bitte; mit special pizzazz; ein huge Klumpen of momentum; und ein extra-großer bucket of sizzle… – oh, und a Stein of sparkling virtuosity!”
     “To eat in; or to go…?”
     “Ach: to go, danke! To go mit a bang…!”

There are some performances (I have now declared) that should not be gauged by the number of tears shed (one of the usual Bardic measures, of course); nor by the charisma or technique of the soloists; or even the astonishing dedication and musicality of the players and composers involved – all of which can be presupposed when the Orchestra of the Swan are involved… – but, instead, should be judged by the sheer cumulative dynamism that is required to create and perform them, to bring them to life. (Fulfilment of, or success in, all of those other factors, listed above, will be achieved, anyway, as a natural consequence….) Such an attribute (particularly concerning OOTS) probably comes somewhere around the Richter and Beaufort scales in intensity; is directly proportional to the square-root of the enjoyment meted out and received; and, I think – after witnessing this programme’s non-stop sequence of marvels (and, remember, twice in two days…) – must be christened the Le Page Scale of Wonderment.

The concert in question thus turned out to be as perfect in reality for the audience as it had looked, theoretically, on paper – revolving, as it did, around the timelessness and genius of one man: Johann Sebastian Bach. And yet, because of the demands it placed on OOTS – specifically in the “dynamism” department (a challenge which seemed simply to provoke in them a constant stream of delight!) – I don’t think it hyperbole to suggest that this programme would have been a nightmare for many other ensembles. There was nowhere to hide from first stunning note to last; and it was a test not only of stamina but of technique. [I was half expecting personal trainers to come on at the interval with towels and buckets of ice; and perhaps even a massage table or two. And then, of course, for Maestro Curtis to deploy a few reserves from the substitutes’ bench. But no such wussiness for this lot! All we had – eventually… – was a change of conductor’s strip.]

Oh, by the way, that “stream of delight” did not spring into existence simply because OOTS made it through to the end, each time; but emanated from the challenge, the music, itself – it emerged from the making of it: and so downright gloriously. [A day later, and I’m still trying to work out how they crammed all this in to a matter of a few seconds, though. I honestly do not remember a concert flying by so quickly – and both times – without a single momentary waning of interest, or moment to draw breath. This was music – both in print and in performance – that you could easily get high on. (And I did.)]

For their 21st Anniversary season, the Orchestra of the Swan have commissioned four composers to write “companion works” to existing ‘concertante’ pieces – principals as soloists being a great way to demonstrate the astounding depth and breadth of this sensational band’s instrumental talent; as well as showing us (just in case we needed reminding… – and we really shouldn’t…) what wonderful music continues to be written for chamber orchestra.

I had no idea of the historical evolution of the civilized world’s music and had not realized that all modern music owes everything to Bach.

The first of these works is Douglas J Cuomo’s (above) Objects In Mirror – which immediately followed the Bach that inspired it: his second Brandenburg Concerto – thereby showcasing leader David Le Page; flautist Diane Clark; oboist Victoria Brawn; David Ponsford on harpsichord; and trumpeters Hugh (for the Cuomo) and Jonathan Clarke (for the Bach). [Although Hugh obviously isn’t very well at the moment, the solo part in Objects In Mirror was written specifically for him: so he travelled up to the Midlands for his sixty-three bars of fame – a demonstration of great fortitude and dedication (he even donated his fees to the Fountain Centre) – as well as some of the greatest “very expansively throughout, with a jazz-like sense of phrasing” horn-blowing, this side of Birth of the Cool. This was playing measured in teardrops: utter beauty; perfection of phrase; and, somehow, an utterly fitting demonstration of the man’s talent and current frailty.]

As (also) befits the themed programme, this is a work that looks pretty challenging on paper – for both soloists and orchestra (concertino and ripieno…) – but everyone involved was obviously having great fun, despite having to concentrate so hard: resulting not only in the habitual happiness glowing from the players’ faces, but OOTS at the very top of their already-supreme game.

Even after studying the score in advance, and discussing it briefly with the composer, what I think surprised me – perhaps having now reflected on the concert through the prism of the final Stravinsky – is how well the almost intangible allusions to Bach, and the specific work that inspired this, shine through. This was helped, firstly, by attending rehearsals; but mostly by a neat little off-the-cuff demonstration from David and the orchestra: highlighting certain themes and ideas – and, consequently, probably reducing the almost palpable fear in the audience that seems to creep in under the doors like a fetid pea-souper every time the words “new work” or “commission” are mentioned….

These “allusions” are perhaps not as blatant as with Dumbarton Oaks (which ended the concert): Cuomo’s work has very little of the neo-classicism that so imbues the earlier tribute… – but they are definitely there: although, I have to admit, without David’s canny masterclass, most would probably have crept up on us unawares; or maybe even passed us by subconsciously.

The work opens with the wonderfully-named Elliptical Sewing Machine. Possibly the most ‘American’ sounding of the three movements – apart from the interpolation of the harpsichord, perhaps… – this was, in places, quite irresistibly funky! Full of joie de vivre – and demonstrating that eighteenth-century instrumentation can still be relevant and valid – this was rapturous stuff; and utterly mesmerizing. There was precise, awesome playing from all involved – and with great heart, too – stitching together some brilliant clothing with that “off-kilter” device!

In the Bach, the trumpet plays very virtuosically, fast and high, in the first and third movements; and is tacet for the second. I flipped that around – silent in the first and last; and playing medium- and even low-register, with long-held notes, in the central one. I discussed this with Hugh… because I wanted to give him something that allowed him to really show off as a soloist – but in the opposite way (again) to that which Bach did. It was also a practical consideration: the plan being to play the Bach first… – after which your chops really need a rest!

Hugh’s moment in the sun – simply Ballad – was the perfect love song: a beautiful distraction from worldly concerns (and, for the first performance, the awful weather outside). As Cuomo says above – and after the intense drive of the opening movement – this was balm indeed. If the first movement reminded me somewhat of the hustle and bustle of a great city; then this one left that metropolis far, far behind. Even Copland’s Quiet City was nowhere to be seen. This was a luscious dreamscape; a thoughtful wander: if not through our own (or the composer’s) innermost thoughts, through the mists – of time; of a country dawn; of history… – with just fleeting remembrances of the urban jitteriness we had left behind. [That this suited Hugh – that it suited Hugh’s present life – so perfectly, simply rendered it even more poignant: a prolonged sigh for what had been… – but with deep optimism for the future. (And anyone who tells me that you can’t be sad whilst listening to jazz, hasn’t heard Hugh and his harmon mute – surely one of the sexiest instrumental sounds ever devised (albeit with a tendency toward the mournful) – and certainly has not listened to enough jazz!)]

Of course, David (Le Page), Diane and Victoria were Hugh’s high equals: wrapping a comforting quilt of extended lyricism and warmth around him; and with some wonderful echoing friendly interjections and accompaniments. Those final six notes, though – “very freely” – trumpet not quite silent, creeping away over cellos and basses – will stay with me for ever. (Simply glancing at the score now provokes a flood of those tears: the emotion utterly concrete.)

There was more astonishing playing in the final movement’s cadenzas: from David – almost gypsy-like, with earthy passion and his own spellbinding brand of thoughtful virtuosity in every note – Diane: a sweet, sweet bird, growing ever more argumentative; and – immediately following a wonderful, almost Haydnesque, climactic false-ending – Victoria: gentle ardour and authority with every breath; and proof that a reasoned argument will always win the day… (musically, if not politically) – before the door finally, convincingly slammed shut!

[If the central Ballad and final Squabble felt a little truncated, it was only because Cuomo had set himself the (daunting) challenge of writing a piece of exactly the same length – bar-wise – as the Bach. I could quite happily have had them play on for much, much longer, though! (Which is why, of course, I went back for more, the next day.)]

This is a cracking work: the perfect foil to the Bach that inspired it; and it deserves to become a commonplace pairing, as is the Stravinsky with the third Brandenburg. (New works can sometimes tarnish, it has to be said – but that mostly stems from lack of performance; and music is written only, truly, for performance – it only exists in performance. Like an unread book, or a painting kept in a deep, dark vault, we do a disservice to living composers – especially ones of this calibre – by not building their works into the repertoire so that they become, well, not routine… – but that their ‘airing’ becomes the rule, rather than the exception.)

The concert had opened with Steve Martland’s stupendous (“arrangement” isn’t really a strong enough word, here: so let’s say…) reimagining of Bach’s legendary Toccata and Fugue in D minor. I have raved on these pages before about this “utterly original – and as crisp and fresh as a newly-plucked grape” work, and how it so suits OOTS’ transcendent strings. But it bears repeating. It bears repeating.

This is not any kind of traditional gentle warm-up music, by any stretch of the imagination (or biceps): more a way of instantly demonstrating the high levels of energy, precision and passion (the three axes, perhaps, of the Le Page Scale…?) that would be sustained throughout the evening. Never waning; always astonishing… – pushing you hard back in your seat from the get-go.

And then the second Brandenburg – which also never fails to sound astoundingly fresh – and, yes, there are (officially) four soloists: but this is really a demonstration piece for the trumpeter; and one of the most difficult works in the repertoire. And, yes, it was sad that Hugh doesn’t currently have the “chops” to show what he is capable of – but the generosity and comradeship he and Jonathan Clarke (not a substitute, but an equal…) showed each other (these aren’t just superhumans, you know: they are also some of the nicest people you could ever meet…) just goes to demonstrate another of OOTS’ disarming – and possibly infinite – array of (possibly unique) strengths.

There aren’t many who could fill Hugh’s shoes: but Jonathan blasted the roof off with his opening ascent – and that trill…! Just wow. In the ArtsHouse – where just moving along a couple of seats can completely change the acoustic – sometimes it was hard to separate the soloists; but in Birmingham Town Hall, each line was stunningly clear and perfectly interwoven. I just closed my eyes, and let the staves, dots and lines dance before me, ebbing and flowing, ascending and descending. All four were simply mesmerising… – and, although I was tempted to give the honour to Mr Le Page (below), in the end, performer of the night (and then day) simply had to go to Jonathan: for all sorts of brilliant reasons – including all of the above; as well as a huge heap of bravura and obvious talent…. What clinched it, in the end, was his partnership with David (LP) during the closing bars of the last movement: bringing the work to a controlled, but ultimately thrilling, close. Magical to behold. And I did not breathe until my hands were numb from clapping.

[By the way, I still tend to disagree with David (C)’s decision(s) not to conduct pieces like this. But, in this case, I’ll let him off. Once the blue touch paper was lit, these were self-propelling fireworks of the highest order! (And he is boss, after all!) I do think, however, that just a smidgen of clarity is lost when he is not at the helm; that the oomph is dialled down to, say, 99% of normal. It is a measure of both David (LP)’s talent and the massive esteem he is held in by his colleagues, though, that he manages to play so astoundingly, mesmerizingly well, and still guide the orchestra to such a stunning performance. (One player said to me, afterwards, that David (LP) always makes you want to improve – probably, I think, because he is constantly demonstrating that he is doing the same. As the pre-concert talk at Stratford demonstrated, once more: he is also a great communicator – maybe just not quite so enthusiastically, or knowledgeably, about woodwind, as he is about strings…!)]

Having (eventually) gone to sleep after experiencing what may well have been the world’s most glorious harmonious dream, I – and billions others – woke up to a political nightmare. But this – amongst many other reasons – is what music is for…. Time to finish committing my judgments to paper; and to suggest that David (C) conducts in T‑shirt and jeans more often… – as it is obviously more ‘freeing’ than the starch of tie and tails; and, imperceptibly, perhaps, brought just a tiny air of relaxation to proceedings, along with a lovely breath of fresh air!

After the (concert) interval – and even that flew by, somehow… – we were treated to Bach’s strings-only third Brandenburg Concerto. Again, this never fails to delight – especially when played with OOTS’ magical combination of passion and precision. Just as complex as any contemporary score – each of the three string groupings (three each of violins, violas and cellos) often splitting into their component parts – David (C) managed this with deftness (and a ginormous grin). No baton was needed with such a small group of players – one where every drop of ink hitting the page was audible – his arms gathered as if to embrace, rather than direct.

If the works before the interval had allowed individuals to shine, this was the moment for the whole group to be brilliant. And this is not an orchestra that can resist such opportunity! This, for me, was the highlight of a programme built from a stream of highlights – the glowing sun hitting the highest peak…. Not only the purity of such a small force; but that glow, that resonant lure of string music – from the intimacy of a Haydn or Beethoven string quartet through to the shimmering splendour of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Tippett… – harmonies that have a line, that sing, straight to my soul. This – for all my spilling of “generous” adjectives and adverbs loaded with praise, astonishment, delight, satisfaction… – was perfection. And its direct link with the Martland which opened the programme, wizardly.

It is easy to see why Stravinsky became so fixated with it: not only the wonder and power of the notes; but the inventiveness of the scoring; the crispness of the counterpoint; the ebbing and flowing of voices through and across the stage. I do not believe in God. But Bach did. And God obviously believed in him.

So, to finish, Stravinsky’s response to that “fixation”: a work that bears a similar relationship to the third as Cuomo’s does to the second – the scintillating and spellbinding Dumbarton Oaks – which, like the Bach, turns every single member of the ensemble into a soloist. (And I can forgive David for not running the movements together, attacca – after all, even the greatest athletes need a break now and then!)

I am not sure that any band of players could ever make this look easy: but OOTS sure as heck didn’t make it appear the challenge it truly is. Its full title is Concerto in E flat for Chamber Orchestra – and that “concerto” word is paramount: not only creating stars on every stave; but requiring an individual and group virtuosity that is second nature to OOTS – their powers of instrumental transparency and camaraderie (a handful of string players, plus five wind) conquering every complexity; every line as clear as spring water… – although it opens with what could almost be a peal of church bells: hidden (not very successfully) amongst which is the selfsame theme that launches the preceding Bach!

This, for me, is Stravinsky at his neo-classical best (with the wit dialled up to eleven). And, from the dazzling sound they produced, it seems as if OOTS might agree! It may not be as ‘in your face’ as Le Sacre du printemps – although there are strong hints of that riotous work: particularly in the last movement – but it demonstrates perfectly his mastery of rhythm, melody and instrumentation: and with a huge dollop of heart (nicely interwoven with self-conscious, affectionate pastiche)!

No wonder the applause went on for so long….

This was not only an extremely intelligently-crafted programme – with all its internal “mirror-symmetries”, reflections, refractions, tributes and inspirations – but one full of power and great joy; one that lifted the soul and the spirits – as well as leaving you in awe of what the OOTS Energizer Bunnies can achieve. [I just count myself extremely fortunate to have had the chance to be there twice. (This was, after all, a programme christened Bach to the Future.)]

It is just a shame – at both venues – that there weren’t full houses to witness this captivating contiguity – although, to be fair, it wasn’t that far off at Stratford ArtsHouse, thankfully. I shall never understand, though, why some otherwise-avid concert-goers will go out of their way to avoid a programme with ‘contemporary’ music scheduled – especially when (in this case) it’s only twenty minutes or so in length. How on earth can anyone know in advance whether they’ll like it, loathe it, or absolutely adore it (which, in this case, I can guarantee they would have done…)?

This was something incredibly special and compelling. So, be warned: the new work from Paul Moravec commissioned for the next concert – as a “companion piece” to Haydn’s deceptively charming Sinfonia Concertante – is heart-breakingly, jaw-droppingly, lung-stoppingly beautiful. (If you don’t believe me, please listen to his Tempest Fantasy, the Violin Concerto, one of his quintets… – indeed, any of his wide-ranging recorded repertoire… – they will not disappoint.)

Oh, and of course those tears… – they were mostly of joy and admiration.

Hugh took one last lingering look around the Town Hall before slowly leaving the stage…. Don’t worry, though: he’ll be Bach. This is a man (pictured above, earlier in the year, with composer Dobrinka Tabakova) as mettlesome as the instrument he plays. (That doesn’t mean – hint, hint – that you shouldn‘t click that link at the top of this review, and hit the “donate” button!)

Music owes as much to Bach as religion to its founder.